As if Death was Contagious , by Rachel Maizes.
Every now and then I wondered if I was the one who was crazy. Crazy for not being able to see him when she seemed to see him as clear as day, talked to him as if he could answer, set a plate of full of food in front of his empty chair at dinner every night and then cleared the untouched plate, scraping the uneaten food into the disposal as if it was scraps.
My grandfather Carl said it was the shock; that she would get over it. But it had been six months and she was still telling my father about the Caribbean Island where the Stevensons had gone on vacation and the Lexus the Belsons had bought. It was getting to the point where sitting at the table I thought I could almost see him—leaning back in his chair, a silk handkerchief angling out of his suit pocket, grinning at us.
There were things I wanted to ask him, like why he didn’t see the bus coming before it slammed into the side of his body. Even on a busy Manhattan street a bus is a hard thing to ignore. I figured he was lost in his own thoughts like he used to get sometimes. Or maybe he just thought the bus was no match for him.
“It’s time to reserve the beach house,” she said to him one night. “We don’t want to end up with the last week in August. The flies are just terrible that time of year. Like something out of the Bible! Like the locusts in Egypt! I’d like to get something in July. Maybe even the Fourth. What do you think about that? Can you get away that early, George?”
Then the kitchen was quiet.
“Wonderful. I’ll e-mail them tomorrow. They’ll probably want a deposit.”
She took a few bites of steak, then glancing at the head of the table, asked, “The meat’s not too tough, is it? I hate to overcook it.” She paused and then laughed. “I bet you say that to all the girls,” she said.
“What do you think, Darleen?” she said to me, “he probably says that to all the girls.”
“I have a French test tomorrow,” I said, and I grabbed my knapsack from the back of my chair and made for my room.
After my father died, the simplest act of walking from my bed to the kitchen was like trying to swim the butterfly wearing a bridesmaid’s dress, exhausting and useless. At first no one expected anything from us. Carl brought food over to the house—roasted chickens and pint containers of potato salad from the supermarket—and took care of all of the “arrangements.”
“Virginia, we’re here for you,” George Senior, my father’s father, assured my mother in the chapel before the service. He sounded like the vacuum cleaner salesman who had poured chalk dust on our carpet and wanted six thousand dollars for the machine that would suck it up. George Senior flew back to California the day after the funeral and we hadn’t heard from him since.
My friends also disappeared. I still found their socks mixed in with mine and their allergy medicines were still on the shelf in our kitchen. But after I freaked out at the bus stop in front of Great Neck High School on my first day back, beating my fists on the side of a bus and screaming at the driver, no one called to invite me out on Friday night. Not even my best friend Laura who has the same secret tattoo as me, a tiny pink rose on the inside of her arm.
Even Carl eventually forgot about us. He was too busy playing bridge and flying off to Palm Beach with his third wife Rhonda to worry about us.
In a way, I was glad no one was around. I was terrified that word would get out about my mother and that we would become a joke. As it was I sometimes heard people whispering.
At school, I went to chemistry and English and showed up for swim practice and competed in swim meets. But even as I moved from the classroom to the locker room to the pool, I was aware that a part of me was missing, had stayed behind in the chapel with my father’s body, or was chasing his soul as it floated upward from the grill of the bus. I watched my friends hanging out in the halls, eating chips and flirting, knowing that what they were feeling wouldn’t last, that death would interrupt their happiness sooner or later. I felt that god had let me in on a secret that I would just as soon never have learned.
I kept waiting for my mother to break down. But when she would catch me crying she would say, “Is it that Rodney, again?” Rodney was my first boyfriend, and the first boy to make me cry. “I told you he’s not worth it. A beautiful girl like you, you’ll have to beat them off with sticks.”
Every Saturday she took my father’s unworn shirts out of the bedroom closet down to the basement and washed and ironed them and hung them up again. She ran a lint brush over his pristine suits. She had me ride my bike to the dry cleaners to pick up some item of his that she had dropped off during the week. The clerk didn’t say a word as I paid and accepted the clothes, but as I turned to leave the store I imagined I saw her mocking smile reflected in the glass.
When I asked my mother for money for swim team fees, or for my allowance, she looked at me strangely like why was I asking her. Finally it was easier just to take the money from her purse. After awhile there was nothing left to take and I started looking for coins in the corners of drawers.
Every day she dropped a new pile of unopened mail on the dining room table. Bills and condolence cards, mostly. Something from an insurance company and from the chemical company where my father had been a Vice President. I suppose she was waiting for my father to take care of it all. Eventually the table disappeared completely under all that failed communication.
It got to the point where you couldn’t pick up the phone without someone on the other end demanding payment of the electric bill or the credit card bill or the mortgage. I was afraid we would end up on the street. Lying in bed at night, I pictured my mother’s legs swelling up and hardening. I saw myself with unwashed hair, wearing all of my clothes, pushing a shopping cart filled with greasy blankets and old shoes down the exclusive Cedarhurst shopping strip. I’d be sitting in chemistry trying to remember how to balance an equation and all I could think about was whether to wear my Diesels or my Adidas when we became homeless.
One night, I called Carl and asked him to take my mother to a psychiatrist. I could hear Rhonda shouting in the background, telling him that Jeopardy was about to start. “We solve our own problems,” Carl said.
The only problem I used to have was how to jam new clothes into my overstuffed closet. Now I had one dead parent and one who was utterly useless. I stopped speaking to my mother, ignoring her cheerful attempts to draw me into conversations with him or her polite inquiries into my life, turning my back on her when she brought fresh linens into my room or passed on her copy of Vogue. Looking around my room, at the flat screen TV that I got for Christmas the year before, the notebook computer that my father had said cost more than his first car, the stereo and the IPOD, I felt the urge to smash it all, to feel the plastic crush beneath my heel and the glass tear into my skin. I would have done it too, if I didn’t think that everything I owned had suddenly become irreplaceable.
The words FINAL NOTICE began to appear in large red letters on the envelopes the mailman brought to the house. I wondered what he thought as he pushed them through the brass slot at the base of our door. I wondered if he told our neighbors about those letters or whether he kept them secret.
I came home from school one night and found my mother, sitting at the kitchen table, staring aimlessly at her Christian Dior purse. From the look on her face I thought, she finally understands, but when I asked her what was wrong she said the clerk at the supermarket store had refused her credit cards.
“Something about being over the limit,” she said. “But you know that’s impossible. You know how high these limits are.” She was quiet for a minute, but then she perked up. “Must be a computer error. I’m sure they’ll have it straightened out by tomorrow.”
That night, I decided I couldn’t wait anymore. Sitting at the head of the dining room table, I opened all the mail, making one pile for bills and two for death. I put all the condolence cards in one pile, things like insurance, my father’s last paycheck and the notice from social security in the other. It took about two hours to sort it all. When it was all laid out in front of me, I signed my mother’s name on the back of the insurance check and filled out a deposit slip for their joint account.
I rode my bike over to the bank and put the check in the night deposit slot, only later wondering whether that was the best way to deposit a seven hundred and fifty thousand dollar check. When I got back, I began to pay the bills, writing checks and signing my mother’s name.
My father’s checkbook had been on top of his desk, but I quickly ran out of checks. As I went through his desk drawer looking for more, I found a TO DO list with half the items checked.
√Take car in for detailing
√Get measured for new suit
Order case of Duckhorn 2004 Napa Valley Merlot
Buy gift for JG
At first I could only stare at his handwriting. He came back to life in the carefully formed letters, no two touching, as they did in my handwriting or my mother’s. He came back to life just as he did when I looked into his eyes in the pictures that sat above the fireplace mantle or listened to the sound of his voice on the telephone answering machine. I pictured him standing over me, explaining algebra which I had found so mysterious and impossible, his long fingers tracing the steps in a problem. As I held the list of tasks that he would never complete, I felt his soul linger briefly above the letters, and then he was gone, the loss as fresh and complete and unbearable as the day of the accident.
I wondered who JG was. Probably a colleague from work. I couldn’t throw out the list and so I put it back in the drawer, next to his reading glasses and the silver pocket watch that had belonged to his grandfather. He was always talking about getting the watch fixed but he never did. Even though it was broken, he polished it every now and then, placing a tub of polish, a soft yellow cloth, and a pair of rubber gloves on top of newspaper on the kitchen table.
His own watch, the watch he was wearing when he died, was in the drawer, too, although I don’t know who put it there. The force of the bus had crushed his skull, but it had not stopped his watch. The glass that covered the watch face was a bit scuffed, but the watch was keeping good time.
Next to the watch was the five hundred dollar Mont Blanc pen that my parents had fought about last Christmas, my mother complaining that he had spent more on a gift for himself than on the gift that he had bought for her, a pair of pearl earrings when she had been hoping for diamonds. The pen sat in its velvet case. I took it out and wrote my name on the back of an envelope. Even though the pen hadn’t been used in months, the ink flowed perfectly.
I found a box of checks, but I continued to go through the desk. I listened to the dull work memos that he had dictated on his micro-cassette recorder just to hear the sound of his voice. I paged through the auto and home insurance policies that listed him as owner. I filled a notebook with his return address stamp, pressing the stamp into the black ink pad and onto the pages over and over just to see his name, just to be holding the stamp that he had held, that he had pressed into the ink.
I thought I had seen everything when deep in the back of the bottom drawer I found a thick manila envelope. A bunch of photos fell out when I undid the clasp. One picture showed my father and a woman standing next to each other at a party. The woman was someone he had worked with, someone I vaguely remembered seeing at our house at Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties years before. It was even possible that the picture had been taken at one of those parties. And then: one of the woman at the beach, wearing a halter top and white capris, my father in a bathing suit. “No way,” I said out loud. “No.”
Some of the photos were graphic, the woman on her knees, wearing only a teddy, her hands stretched out like claws. In one photo she was on her back on a day bed, wearing nothing at all, as sunlight streamed in through a window behind her.
I started shredding the photos. But still, I couldn’t erase from my mind his smile—one with more joy than he’d ever shown with my mother, or me, for that matter.
I sat back in the chair, my cheeks wet and my nose running, and I wondered who my father had really been. Looking up at me from torn photos he seemed to say, I never belonged to you at all.
I only managed to destroy about half of the pictures. The rest were spread out in front of me on the desk in plain sight of the door. When I heard my mother approaching from down the hall, I shoved them back in the envelope, back into the recesses of the drawer.
Now when my mother placed the mail on the dining room table I took it into my father’s study and opened it. I wrote out checks with the Mont Blanc pen and signed my mother’s name. For my allowance, I wrote myself a check each week, making it out to CASH. You couldn’t blame me for giving myself a bit extra. I was the one taking care of things.
I was fanatical about paying the bills on time. Except for my mother’s cell phone. I would let that one go just to see her press one button after another frantically when she couldn’t get any service, just to watch her confusion when the phone miraculously rang again a few days later.
Once, when my mother was out running errands, I took the photos out and examined them. Then I gathered his large collection of Brooks Brother’s ties and burned them on the barbecue grill in the backyard, black smoke curling through the bare maple and ash trees. Later, I gouged an obscenity into the door of his black BMW, shards of metal flaking to the ground where the cuts were deepest. Over time I reduced his wine collection to hundreds of broken bottles littering a neighborhood basketball court.
My mother continued to have long conversations with him, to have dinner ready when he used to arrive home at night, to iron his clothes. With Christmas approaching, she began dropping hints about a pair of diamond earrings that she had seen at a department store. Meanwhile she had placed wrapped presents for my father and me in a circle on the floor of the living room. I presumed there was an imaginary Christmas tree in the middle of that circle; my father always brought a tree home on the day after Thanksgiving. Weeks passed and no new presents were added to the pile, nothing with her name on it, nothing at all.
I could tell she was puzzled. I would catch her staring into the living room, her brow knit tightly together. She would hover over the presents examining them closely, nudging the large boxes with her toe to see if perhaps she had missed something. Gradually I began to detect a change in her attitude towards him. She stopped making his favorite foods. And although she still talked to him every night, she stopped calling him “sweetheart” and “honey” and sometimes she snapped at him.
I hadn’t bought her anything even though I had plenty of money. For about five seconds I considered buying her the diamond earrings. But it had been months since I had felt any good cheer. While my mother was living her imaginary life, my real life was falling apart. I was failing chemistry. I had been kicked off the swim team for missing too many practices. My social life had dried up so completely that the sound of my cell phone startled me. My classmates were busy collecting college applications and visiting campuses, and I was wondering whether I could go to college at all. Even if I could figure out how to pass chemistry, I didn’t know who would take care of my mother. I couldn’t go off and leave her with a ghost.
Before my father died, my house had swarmed with friends. We emptied the refrigerator and flung our bodies across the living room furniture. Some had braved the chapel, clinging to the back wall as if death was contagious. They stared at their black shoes and glanced at their watches and with great sighs of relief expressed their condolences and fled. I didn’t hear from them after that. When I saw them at school, they were too polite, and I knew I was unwelcome. Maybe it was because of what happened at the bus stop. Or maybe it was that I didn’t bother to do my hair anymore and forgot to change my clothes from one day to the next, or that I cried at the least little thing, like hearing someone’s father cheering at a swim meet. Or maybe it was just that the Darleen they knew disappeared the day of the accident and I was nothing like her. Even Laura stared at her French manicure when I tried to talk to her. I considered telling Renee Rosen, the biggest gossip at school, that Laura had gotten crabs from Jonathan Schumacher (which was true), or passing around the photos I had taken of Laura in a lingerie store dressing room. The only thing that stopped me was remembering how she had covered for me when Rodney’s parents were in Jamaica for a month and Rodney and I had the house to ourselves.
If any of my friends had called, I wouldn’t have known what to say. By the way, my father had a mistress? He didn’t really love me after all? I couldn’t bear the thought of them visiting and seeing my mother talking to my father or bringing him a cup of coffee, or lately, criticizing him for some imagined offense. I didn’t want to know what they would think of our invisible Christmas tree or the box of lights my mother had left for him to hang. Aside from my grandfather, no one came to the house. The impression of my shoes on the carpet remained undisturbed for weeks.
Christmas eve my mother made a turkey with all the trimmings. She set the table with her grandmother’s linens. She wore her hair up and put on a red Armani dress that fell above her knee; the dress had been one of my father’s favorites. We sat down at the dining room table and she placed the turkey in front of his seat and waited for him to carve it. After the bird sat immobile for awhile, I leaned across the table and picked up the carving knife, but she wouldn’t have it. “Let your father do it,” she said. We sat in silence for another ten minutes, while I imagined carving XMAS into the surface of the antique table.
“I’m tired of having to do everything around here,” she said, as she lifted the platter and dumped the turkey in the garbage. Then she went to their bedroom and slammed the door. I lifted the turkey from its bed of coffee grounds and egg shells and rinsed it off. I sliced some white meat and micro-waved it with some gravy. I ate in front of the TV, watching Christmas Music from Around the World.
The next day she refused to come out of her room. I opened my presents alone. Even the portable DVD player she had bought me failed to cheer me up. By three o’clock she still hadn’t come out of her room so I ate a bowl of Frosted Flakes for Christmas dinner. That’s when I decided to surprise her with a present of my own.
On monogrammed stationery I had found in my father’s desk, copying his handwriting as closely as I could, I wrote the note:
I met someone at work. We are meant to be together. Don’t try to find us.
I folded it and slipped in into an envelope, enclosing three of the pictures, one of my father and the woman together on the beach, one of the woman wearing the teddy, another of the woman nude. I wrote my mother’s name across the envelope and left it on the kitchen table.
I wasn’t in the room when she found it. I imagine that when she first saw the envelope her face probably lit up, as if it was the present she had been expecting all along.
The next day I knew she had read it because her eyes were glassy and bloodshot. I overheard her telling my grandfather on the phone that George had left her and I can only imagine that he greeted the news with relief.
Within a month, she’d renewed her teacher’s license and started going to the gym. She began to pay the bills herself and met with a stock broker to see about investing the large sum of money she had discovered in the checking account.
She packed up my father’s clothes, down to the last unmatched sock, and had the Salvation Army cart them off. It must have given her great satisfaction to think of a bum wearing his custom Italian suits. I begged her not to give away his desk, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Before she had a chance, I went through it and destroyed the rest of the photos. I gathered the Mont Blanc pen, the return address stamp and the broken pocket watch. They are all that I have left of him. My mother won’t speak of my father, so I have no one to remember him with.
We eat earlier now, when she comes home from her job teaching English at a local private school. We sit across the table from one another and she looks at me during the meal and asks me about school. We go to the spa for facials and manicures like we did before the accident.
With some tutoring in chemistry, I managed to get into a state college. I start in the fall and I plan to go out for the swim team.
My mother has made friends at her new job, friends who think she is divorced. They go to museums on Saturday and she is invited to their homes for dinner to meet their single friends. She has cut her hair shorter, and has had laser surgery to correct her vision. She is busy reading novels and writing lesson plans. This summer she’s planning to tour Italy with a singles group.
I like to take the credit for her rebound, for her return to the world of the living, but every now and then I catch her pouring her third glass of wine, her eyes hollow and ringed with grey, and I wonder whether one photo would have been enough.
Rachel Maizes was born and raised in New York City, but now calls Boulder, Colorado, home. Lawyer by day, writer by night, she is reminded daily by her two dogs, Tilly and Chance, that her most important jobs are scratching them behind the ears and mixing that good wet stuff into their food. "As If Death Was Contagious" is her first published literary short story.
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