Featured Prose | March 23, 2020
The City of the Dead by Jennifer Dubois
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Today’s selection is by Jennifer Dubois. In “The City of the Dead,” a man’s second wife and his daughter by a previous marriage wrestle over the rights to his remains in Jennifer du Bois’ darkly comic story about the toll dementia takes on caregivers and family. “The City of the Dead” was a fiction finalist in our 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest. Jennifer’s debut novel A Partial History of Lost Causes was published by the Dial Press in 2012 and won the California Book Award Gold Medal for First Fiction, as well as being named one of the best ten books of the year by O: The Oprah Magazine. Her second novel, Cartwheel, was released in 2013. She is a Whiting Award winner, and her most recent novel, The Spectators (Random House), was one of the New York Times’s “10 Books to Watch for” inApril, 2019.
The City of the Dead
The first time I went to visit Dr. Hill at Park View, I brought him a bouquet of flowers. It would be six weeks before the headstone would be in, and the grave was gutted-looking still, like new gardening. It all looked a little vulgar and exposed, and I didn’t like to look at it straight—though it was true I’d seen Dr. Hill much more exposed than this. “Don’t get used to this,” I said, laying the flowers at his grave. Dr. Hill didn’t respond, but then he’d never been talkative when I knew him in this life, either.
In the car, Stephen and Andy were listening to some awful radio, their little heads bobbing up and down like chickens pecking at the ground. After a while I went to sit with them, and we all bobbed together. Nothing happened. I changed the radio to the news, and the boys yelled. There were depressing numbers about Afghanistan. There was classical music.
“Grandma,” said Stephen, “why are you making us sit in a cemetery?”
I changed the radio back. It’s a nice cemetery, mostly because of the view. The cemetery sits on top of a hill and looks out on a dramatic wash of sea and sky. The cliffs crumble down into the Pacific like they might at the edge of the world—if the world had an edge. And if you’re going to sit in a cemetery for most of the day, it’s best to sit in one as old as this one. Most of the people here would be dead by now no matter what had happened to them, and that makes the whole project somewhat less depressing.
The boys were getting antsy and mildly violent. They started to kick at my seat, and I told them to quit it. The owlish groundskeeper came by with a rake, and we all waved. She waved back. She’d been apprised of the situation. A woman came with a Christmas wreath, but she wasn’t the right woman. A man came and stood in front of a grave with a look of silent fury.
“What is he doing?” said Stephen. Stephen is six and towheaded and has a girlish lisp. Andy is four and floppy-eared and looks strikingly like a mouse. Neither of them will make attractive men, but as boys they are heartbreaking.
“Visiting his daddy, probably,” I said.
“Where’s his daddy?” said Stephen.
“It’s weird here,” said Andy.
“Do you boys want gum?” I said.
They did want gum. I wanted a drink. I never drink my first day on a job, and this felt like a new job, though in a lot of ways it wasn’t. I wish I could say I never drank when the boys were with me, but that’s not entirely true. I can say, though, that I was always meticulous about the drive. I’d stop drinking a full hour before I had to head down the switchbacks to the other side.
“Grandma,” said Andy. “I’m cold.” That boy was always cold. I turned on the engine, though there was no way I was wasting an afternoon’s worth of gas on a child who refused to wear a sweater.
“All right,” I said. “Five minutes.”
The light grew thinner, and the wind kicked up. The boys played tic-tac-toe on the window panes. We watched and waited, but no one else came.
I do eldercare, which makes for problematic job security—each job has its own layoff built in. The details vary, but my time with each client follows the same general arc. At first I sit with them for half-days and set up their movies and drive them out to the same cheap buffet lunches and keep them away from the stove. They eat microwaved mashed potatoes, and I daub seltzer when they dribble. I read them items from the newspaper, usually local bits about rescued animals, or schoolchildren doing volunteer work. When I go to full days, I sit in the afternoons and do the crossword puzzle. They doze on the couch, gearing up for nightmarish evenings when they’ll zombie-shuffle through the house, insensate as sleepwalkers, their fingers groping desperately at all the surfaces and doors. For me, this is the easy part. I watch TV. I use the Internet. I’ve joined Facebook now, though my daughter Penny seems to find this amusing, on days when she finds anything amusing. I play endless rounds of word games, and I’ve built up an entire fantasy farm, complete with pigs and an egret.
This is the part where the families start to wonder if they are overpaying me, especially when they find their crosswords always done. I let them wonder. I know how it will be, and I know what I’ll mean to them then.
When it gets worse, I wrestle the elders into showers, and I duck when they spit and punch. They bend back my wrist, and I know how to lean into them. They swear and snarl. They escape, and I chase them. I wrangle them back inside. I live with claw marks on my arms, bracelets of bruising around my throat. The families stop wondering if they are overpaying me. When it gets worse again, I change their bed pans. I turn up the morphine when they holler, if it comes to that. I rotate them so bedsores don’t bloom on their papery skin, like the first blushes of bubonic plague.
By then I’m like family, but better—family doesn’t do this stuff for family, not if they can afford not to. I am the goddess of capitalism, of the specialization of labor. The families talk to me in solicitous voices, most of the time. They remember my birthday. They love me and hate me like you do the person who knows all the worst things about you. I am the patron saint of their lives.
The first time I went to meet Dr. Hill and his wife, Angela, we sat at their beautiful oak dining room table and talked about the plan for care. According to Angela, Dr. Hill had been a charming, brilliant man once. Not all families claim previous charm or brilliance for their demented, but everybody claims something. Everybody reminds me that their relative was not always so. They don’t have to remind me. I flatter myself that I’m charming, too—but I don’t flatter myself that I won’t exit raving and drooling, like everyone else. And I only hope that when I do, I have compassionate and pragmatic care.
Angela had been taking care of Dr. Hill for six and a half years before she called me. She was a bit of a holdout; you could tell this was the first disaster of her life that no amount of research or effort had been able to mitigate. Angela wore a cashmere sweater and tasteful makeup, but she looked like shit anyway. She had inky pits under her eyes. Her arms were ropy, and her hands were ruffled with elevated veins—as though she were a professional weightlifter, or severely dehydrated. Some caregivers fill out, and some waste away, but none of them, in my experience, look wholly normal. Next to her sat Dr. Hill. His mouth hung open, and he was wearing a tie flecked with pumpkin-colored stains.
“He traveled to twenty-seven foreign countries,” said Angela, handing me a cup of tea. “It’s hard to believe it now.”
I told her she had been doing a terrific job. I said I understood how exhausted she must be. I told her that dementia is like a black hole—it is insatiable, and it will consume every bit of light in its proximity. And I didn’t mention it, of course, but Dr. Hill was taking a particularly long time to die.
“Have you had any help from relatives?” I said, though I supposed not. Responsibility, like luck, is never evenly distributed in families.
“No,” she said quickly. She was glad I had asked. She had been waiting for someone to ask. “He has a daughter from a previous marriage. Long defunct. But she doesn’t come.”
“I understand,” I said.
“They weren’t close,” she said. “He was away on research a lot. But even so, you’d think she’d come. Wouldn’t you think she’d come?”
“Well,” I said, “everyone reacts differently.”
She stared for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “I guess they do.”
I looked at Dr. Hill. He was staring into space and meditatively probing his nose with two fingers.
“Do you have any children?” said Angela, pulling Dr. Hill’s hand away.
“A daughter,” I said. I didn’t like to go into it any farther than that with clients’ families. Penny is clinically depressed. She can barely manage to feed her own children and brush her own teeth. I’m told some of this is my fault.
“Oh,” said Angela. Now she was using her thumbnail to remove some of the dried squash from Dr. Hill’s tie.
“And grandchildren,” I offered, because everybody loves grandchildren. I produced pictures of Stephen and Andy from my wallet. Stephen’s missing a front tooth in the photo, and he’s tilting his head proudly so you can see the little spot of gore where the tooth had been.
“Adorable,” said Angela, but she wasn’t really looking. Dr. Hill was trying to pull his teabag out of his tea. “Fuck,” he said. “Fuck.” Angela held his hand, lightly, to keep him from scalding himself. “You cunt,” he said to her.
She looked at me apologetically, though she didn’t need to. “I don’t know,” she said. “He was a professor of anthropology. He was beloved. He had tenure.”
She was wearing earrings, I noticed. She was going grocery shopping. I wondered how long she had been waiting to wear those earrings—how long she had been fantasizing about this simple, silly thing—to listen to the radio in the car, maybe. To buy herself a coffee. To walk through well-stocked neon aisles without fear of anybody in her care pooping in the frozen foods section.
“I understand,” I said.
She took her hand away from his and wrapped her silver scarf around her neck. Then she asked me the question that everybody asks.
“You’ll take good care of him, won’t you?”
And for the most part, I did. When I started with Dr. Hill, I was drinking less than I would later—only in the evenings, usually, and often only a drink or two. Once he was really sick, I never would have dreamed of it. You need to be ready to get in a car and drive the patient to the hospital; you need to be ready to take their gloves off the stove. You need to be ready to duck if they punch. You need to be ready to go in if they aspirate. You need to be sharp.
But in those first few months, when Dr. Hill was mostly sleepy and dozing through every afternoon in his chair, I will admit it was a temptation. There were a few times I slipped up, and a few times I planned to slip up. Sometimes I brought a flask. It made me feel young.
I’d only drink on easy days, after he was fed and medicated, after the violent anguish of the shower was completed. It was so easy to let him sit on the sofa, emitting little honking snores, his eyeballs roiling underneath their lids. The dreams of the demented, I’ve often figured, are among the last things we have in common with them—even after seven years of atrophying cortex, their dreams probably make no less sense than ours. Once he was fully out, I’d take a sip or two—or more. And then I’d wander the house.
The house was notable in a lot of ways, and most notable perhaps for its vast collection of books. In particular, there were a lot of souvenir picture books documenting the different places Dr. Hill had gone, I suppose, when he was charming and brilliant. Angela had set the books out for Dr. Hill to look at—rich people in particular like to treat their demented like gifted children and ply them with crayons and clay and Mozart CDs. Dr. Hill had no interest in the books. But I liked to look at them sometimes while I was drinking and Dr. Hill was sleeping through another brittle afternoon. The one I liked best was about Egypt. It had a whole chapter on Cairo, and there was a two-page spread showing an enormous cemetery called the City of the Dead. It was four miles long, and people lived there among the graves of their ancestors. It was a slum, of course. Rich people bought themselves space away from the dead as soon as they could; it was probably one of the first things anyone did with money. I remember staring at that picture for a long time—at those long blocks, white as bleached bone, intersecting for miles. You couldn’t tell which buildings were crypts and which were houses, and the book didn’t specify. I’d stare and stare at that cemetery-town until it blurred into a monochromatic mass, wondering which structures contained grey morasses of lingering ash and which contained crying children and shouting wives. I’d stare until darkness fell and my buzz wore off and it was time to microwave Dr. Hill his dinner.
Dr. Hill took four more years to die. This was lucky for me because I needed the money. It was less lucky for Angela—and, by the end, for Dr. Hill.
After the funeral, of course, there was some ugliness in the family. The details vary, but trouble happens almost every time. People turn on each other for money or the competing claims on memories that the dead person can no longer arbitrate or the accretions of rage when one person cared for the dead in their derangement and another person did not. There’s a chasm between those who turned away and those who looked. And so often, a family is like a vase that’s been broken for years but that nobody’s ever moved. Death is like the moving, and with it, things come apart in big, raggedy pieces, sometimes, or a shimmer of porcelain dust.
With the Hills, the trouble came from the absent daughter, Lorraine—which I suppose was predictable enough. I’d never met Lorraine. After Dr. Hill died, though, she made herself known. She disputed the will. She disputed the obituary. And then, two days before the funeral, she went to the funeral home to demand some of Dr. Hill’s ashes. She wanted to put them in a necklace.
The funeral home director called Angela to ask about it. He said this was getting to be a fairly common request, and he seemed to regard the whole thing as a benign kind of fashion trend. But Angela was adamant that it would not happen. She said it was not what Dr. Hill would have wanted—that it was making a fetish of death, and it was vaguely incestuous, vaguely Oedipal. This is how she talked. She said it was ghoulish. She said it was a violation. She said, in one of her more emotive moments, that it was blasphemous. She’d never given any indication of being religious before, but religion has a way of coming upon people in these circumstances, swift and irrevocable as a terminal disease. This is another thing I’ve seen time and again.
The day before the funeral, there was a lot to be done. I’d already arranged the flowers and the music and the catering for the reception, and I was putting together a photo board of Dr. Hill’s travels. Angela lay on the sofa with a cold compress over her head. She’d been eating a lot of Ativan, and Lorraine had called six times that morning. We’d been letting her calls go to voicemail.
The phone rang for the seventh time while I was tacking a picture of Dr. Hill at the Taj Mahal to the bulletin board. Angela lifted her head, which she hadn’t done in a while.
“For Christ’s sake,” she said hoarsely. “Can you get it this time?”
I pushed the tack through Dr. Hill’s head and into the cork. In the picture, Dr. Hill is charming and brilliant—you can just tell. Behind him, the ivory mausoleum is palatial and bright white. “Okay,” I said.
“Tell her to fuck off,” said Angela and giggled girlishly. Ever since the death, she’d been exhibiting a sort of giddy libertinism—she’d been laughing strangely at small things, and using language like a sailor, and drinking some. She’d tried to get me to split a bottle of wine with her, but I’d begged off, knowing what a disaster that would be.
I answered the phone. “Hello?”
I heard a scratchy sort of voice. “I need to speak with the lady of the house,” it said.
I shifted the phone to the other ear and cast a sidelong glance at Angela. She was watching me with wide, helpless eyes. “I’m Jo,” I said. “Who’s this?” I’d never spoken to her before, but I knew who it was.
“Put Angela on, please,” said Lorraine. She sounded somewhat unpleasant. Still, she didn’t sound like the kind of person who would do what she was doing.
“It’s her,” I mouthed to Angela. Angela dropped her head back on the pillow. In the last few days, she’d gotten paler and even ropier than before. She looked all tendon, and her face was sharp as an Italian greyhound’s.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the phone. “She’s not available.”
“What’s she doing, lying on the divan and fanning herself?”
I looked at Angela. She wasn’t fanning herself.
“Can I take a message?” I said, even though the message was already pretty clear.
There was a pause.
“Tell her I want a piece of my father,” she said finally. “I think it’s about time.”
I hung up. I took my time fiddling with the receiver.
“What did she say?” said Angela. The cloth was back on her head, obscuring the top of her face.
“She does seem pretty determined.”
“I’m afraid she’ll disturb the grave,” said Angela. “I’m afraid she’ll dig around up there and find a piece of ash for the necklace.” She curled up her feet under her quilt so I could sit at the edge of the sofa.
I sat. “I don’t know about that,” I said. “It sounds a little farfetched.”
“It is farfetched,” she said. “But I wouldn’t put it past her.”
It seemed like a stretch to me, though I didn’t know the woman, and I had heard of such things happening before. Back in ’89, a client’s entire newly buried urn was removed, and though the family had suspicions, no arrest was ever made. That Lorraine might try something similar seemed remote but not unthinkable.
“I’d like you to sit up there,” Angela said. She still had the cloth over her eyes. Talking to her was like having a conversation with a disembodied mouth. “I’d like you to watch him.”
“Watch the grave, you mean?” This struck even me as strange, and I’m no stranger to strange.
“Yes. Just for a little while. Just until all this blows over. Just until all this ends.”
She started to uncurl her knees. She was ready to have the whole couch back.
“Oh,” I said.
I didn’t know if I believed it would end, and I had no idea how Angela would know when it did, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to sound as though I was desperate for such a wretched thing to continue—though it’s true I needed the work.
“I’ll have to reduce your pay some, of course,” she said. “Since it’s easier than what you were doing before.”
I swallowed. I try not to judge. If you were a judgmental person, you’d never last a minute in my line of work—you have to sustain too many tantrums, too many wounds from both the patient and the family. Also, I am a high-functioning alcoholic. So I know a bit about shame, myself.
“Of course, Angela,” I said, patting her quilted feet and standing up. “That makes perfect sense.”
The first time Lorraine showed up at the cemetery, the boys were with me. We’d been playing I Spy, though it’s a hard game to play over and over in the same landscape. She’d materialized like weather, and I didn’t notice her until she was already halfway to Dr. Hill’s grave. I put my water bottle down quickly and popped a mint in my mouth.
“Who’s that?” said Stephen.
“That’s Dr. Hill’s daughter,” I said. “You remember Dr. Hill.”
“Not really,” said Andy.
She wore sunglasses, though the day was descending into a cloudy early twilight. Behind her, the cliffs looked menacing and Biblical in the falling light. In the distance, Carmel was starting to twinkle with automatic porch lights. Lorraine had worn sunglasses at the funeral, too.
“I’m going to say hello to her,” I said to Stephen and Andy. “You boys can play a round without me.”
I made my way down the hill. In the office window I could see the avian face of the groundskeeper watching with concern and, I imagined, a kind of breathless interest. This whole drama was probably the most excitement she’d had at her job in a long while. Lorraine was kneeling at the newly placed headstone, and she didn’t see me until I was practically standing on it. She’d taken off the sunglasses. I felt intrusive and awkward, all of a sudden—like it was me who was doing wrong, and not her.
“Hey,” I said. I meant it like a greeting, but it came out like a threat.
“Who are you?” she said. She’d put down flowers—lurid yellow things that lay limply in the shadows—and I stared at them instead of at her.
“I’m Jo,” I said. “We spoke on the phone. I took care of your dad.”
“Oh. Right.” She squinted at me. “What are you doing here?” Up close, she looked quite a bit like Dr. Hill—an angular slash of a face, thin-rimmed glasses that made her look far more rational than I’d been given to understand she was.
“I’m just watching,” I said.
She looked at me like that sounded crazy, which I’m quite sure it did. She stood up. “What are you?” she said. “Some kind of security detail?”
I didn’t answer that.
“He was my father. I can be here.”
“We can both be here,” I said, trying to sound reasonable.
“I’m just bringing flowers. Am I not allowed to bring flowers up here now?”
“Just the flowers,” I said. “You’re not messing with that thing.”
“You’re just not messing. It’s illegal.”
“It’s illegal for me to visit my father’s grave?”
I looked down. “It’s illegal for you to do anything.” I was embarrassed to articulate such an outlandish, slanderous claim—and this woman, though unfriendly, did not seem to have the requisite level of derangement. “I’m going back to my car,” I said. “But I’m staying.”
I went back up the hill. In the car, Stephen and Andy were using Lorraine as the I Spy object—I Spy something tall; I Spy something partly white and partly brown. I watched her. She moved the flag from the family headstone to Dr. Hill’s military stone—the one that told his war and rank and dates of service. Then she just stood there. It looked like she was waiting for something, though I supposed anything could look like waiting. If she was crying, I couldn’t see it.
“Who’s that?” said Stephen.
“I’ve told you a million times,” I said. “Play a quiet game now. Grandma has to call her boss.”
Angela wanted me to call every day to check in. She didn’t like to come up to the cemetery herself—which was understandable, and also typical. There’s an inverse relationship between the amount of time you spend at a person’s sickbed and the amount of time you spend at their graveside—unless, of course, you’re getting paid to do both. I figured this was as good a time as any to call—real-time reporting, and all. While the phone rang, I rolled my water bottle under my foot. There didn’t seem to be anything left in it.
“Hi, Angela,” I said when she answered. “It’s Jo.”
“How’s it going up there?”
“It’s going fine,” I said.
Down the hill, Lorraine was still just standing there. She looked like maybe she was praying—though I supposed anything could look like praying.
“Has she come?” said Angela.
“She’s here now,” I said, shifting the phone to the other ear. “But she’s just looking. She’s just paying her respects. She’s not trying anything.”
In the back seat, Stephen or Andy started yelping about some offense the other had committed. I turned around to glare at them. There was a meaningful silence on the telephone.
“Do you have—is that a child you have up there?” Angela said finally.
“It’s my grandchildren,” I said. “Their mother isn’t feeling well today.”
“You’re having them sit in a graveyard?”
I thought this was a little much coming from her. “We talk about history,” I said. “We look at the dates. They think it’s interesting.”
“It must be strange for them.”
“It’s a little strange for everyone,” I said. There was a pause, and I knew I shouldn’t have put it that way.
“Yes. Well,” said Angela. “Keep me posted.” She hung up.
After ten minutes, Lorraine walked up the hill, carrying a welter of rust-colored flowers. They were probably from Angela. I felt strange letting her take Angela’s flowers, though there was no denying they were dead. I wasn’t sure if defending against this kind of action was part of my job or not, and I wasn’t calling Angela back to ask.
Lorraine walked toward her car, then made a sudden turn and headed toward mine. She knocked on the window. I rolled it down.
“What?” I said.
“How much does she pay you to do this?”
“What?” In the back seat, Stephen and Andy had grown quiet.
“How much does she pay for you this?” she said. “To sit here and stare at an old man’s grave, day in, day out?”
“I’m not answering that.”
“Is it more, or less than she paid you to change his diapers?”
“You’re being rude,” I said, as though this was the worst of it.
“I’m just wondering. Don’t you think there are some things people should do for themselves?”
“I think there are some things people can’t do for themselves,” I said.
“You’re not kidding,” she said.
I rolled up the window and watched her walk back to her car. Angela’s flowers swung upside-down from her hand like small prey.
For four more weeks, she didn’t come, but I was grateful for the work. Two of my evening clients had recently died back-to-back—one had been expected, but the other had been a man with only moderate dementia who had broken his hip and died post-surgery, and I hadn’t been expecting loss of that income quite so soon. It was a relief to know that no matter what happened to my other clients, I would still have Park View. The dead would stay dead—and, in my experience, the feuds would stay feuds.
That month Penny needed my help with the boys almost every day after school. They’d watch TV in the evenings with the elders. And in the afternoons, at the cemetery, they’d make etchings of all the gravestones, and I’d tell them about the winners and losers of all the different wars. Sometimes they asked me about Dr. Hill—since he was the one we were up there to see—but I’m not the person to ask for fond anecdotes of the man. Most memorable, perhaps, is the day he grew inconsolably wrathful about one injustice or another—a disagreement over the shower, perhaps, which was always a source of bitter quarreling between us. He grabbed my arm and bent it back until it almost broke.
“You bitch,” he’d said. “You bitch.”
I’d disentangled myself from his grip and gone out to the car. I took off my sweatshirt. I was counting on him thinking I was a different person if I wore a different shirt. This is what they pay me to know. I waited three minutes. When I came back, he was holding a frying pan and looking nonplussed. I put on a bright smile and adopted a sweet voice. I usually try to avoid both of these things—personally and professionally—but it seemed wise, in this case, to make an exception.
“How are you today, Dr. Hill?” I said.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “And not that bitch who was here before.”
But that’s not a story I would tell the boys.
“When Dr. Hill was younger, he went to twenty-seven different countries,” I’d say. This was an oft-quoted statisticAngela told me several times while Dr. Hill was sick. And it was mentioned, of course, at the funeral. The boys were unimpressed.
There’s an argument to be made that it’s morbid to take little kids up to graveyards all day, but they didn’t seem to mind it so much after the first time. And there’s something to be said for early and practical exposure to the inevitable. The inevitable, after all, is not so terrible. I’ve watched more deaths than I can count, and though I’ve seen plenty I wouldn’t want to sign up for, every death I’ve seen has seemed like an earned reward.
At any rate, Stephen and Andy didn’t mind it so much. And they loved the ride down afterward. They’d scream when we rode down the switchbacks. The hairpin turns snake around with appalling sharpness, and they’d holler at me to speed up, speed up and then slow down, please slow down. Shale went tumbling down the cliff sometimes, and other cars emerged in front of us with the suddenness and manic barreling of rabid dogs.
The last time Lorraine showed up, I was alone. Penny had managed to pull herself together that week—she’d gotten out of bed and washed her hair and even made the boys cereal, though the milk smelled like it was about a day and a half away from going bad. I’d left the boys with half-filled coloring books and gone up alone. There were perks to the solitude, and I’d been slugging away at my flask for forty-five minutes before Lorraine appeared on the horizon. It’s possible I had miscalculated some or not eaten enough for lunch because I was feeling more buzzed than usual—not drunk, of course, but very relaxed and too clumsy about the tongue to talk quickly or well. It was not a great day for Lorraine to visit. I’d gotten complacent, and I hadn’t been expecting her. When I saw her, I slapped myself on the face and stuck three pieces of gum in my mouth. I put my bottle underneath the brake pedal. On her way down to the grave, she rapped on the window.
“Still paying you the big bucks, I see?”
I rolled my eyes, and then I rolled up the window. I didn’t trust myself to speak. She walked down the hill and stood at Dr. Hill’s gravestone. I smelled my breath against my hand, and it smelled mostly of mint. I figured you’d have to be pretty close—closer than this woman was going to be—to smell anything else.
Lorraine stood in front of the grave. Then she knelt and set down a bouquet of purple flowers. I kept my eyes straight ahead and tried to think focused, caffeinated, sobering thoughts. After a few minutes, she stood and started walking up the hill toward my car. I willed her to go away. She kept walking. I felt a surge in my chest and realized it was panic. She rapped again on the window. I rolled it down and said nothing. I looked at her.
“Hey.” She looked genuinely sorry for me, and that annoyed me. “Those boys who are usually with you.”
“Those are your grandchildren?”
“Yes,” I said. “Obviously.” I should not have said “obviously.” I was annoyed that she had mentioned Andy and Stephen, but I still should not have said “obviously.” Because when I did, there was a slight slur around the sibilant. Lorraine looked pleased.
“Look,” she said. “You know what I want. That’s why you’re here.”
I nodded miserably.
“Give me some of the ashes,” she said. “And I won’t tell.”
“Won’t tell what?” I said, though I wasn’t optimistic about this approach. I’d caught a glimpse of myself in the side-view mirror, and I looked like shit—bloodshot eyes, flyaway hair. I was sure she could smell it in the car. I had not been careful.
“You’re drunk,” she said cheerfully. “And you’re going to do this for me. Every time I’m here, that groundskeeper woman is watching me like a hawk. You’re here all day, every day. They don’t pay attention to what you do.”
“I can’t do that,” I said.
“Because you’re getting paid not to. Fine. She’s not going to know.”
“That’s not the point.”
“What’s the point?”
“I don’t even have any idea how.”
“I do,” she said. “You’d have to dig up the box. It’s eighteen inches underground. It opens in the bottom. You unscrew the bottom of the box with a screwdriver. You put some ashes in a medicine bottle. It doesn’t have to be much. Then you screw it back up and rebury it. Carefully.”
I tried to arrange my face in an expression that captured how insane I thought this was.
“What?” she said. “You think someone’s going to check to see if the ashes are all accounted for?”
“I’m not doing it,” I said. “It’s atrocious.”
“I’m his daughter. I didn’t exactly get much of him while he was alive. He was always gone. Then he left us for Angela. Then he lost his mind. I need something I can keep.”
“That may be,” I said. “But I’m not doing it. Not for this job.” Even though she must have known how badly I needed the job.
She looked away for a moment, and I thought I might have convinced her. But then she looked back. “It’s not just this job, though, is it?”
“What do you mean?”
She pointed to my water bottle—bright blue and visible under the brake pedal. “You drive up here,” she said. “Obviously, you drive up here. Then you drink. Then you drive back down. With those boys? On that road?”
“I am very careful.”
“Obviously, you have a problem. Obviously, you drink on the job. In fact, it makes me wonder if you weren’t drinking some while you were taking care of my father. Can’t imagine your other families would be thrilled to hear that.”
I stared straight ahead. The ocean was a brutal silver, too bright to look at straight. I didn’t want to discuss the violation of a grave with someone who looked exactly like the person buried in it.
“I’ll come back on the weekend,” she said. “And then I won’t come back again.”
She produced a medicine bottle from her pocket and placed it on the dashboard. I rolled up the window. In the hut, the groundskeeper was blinking at me worriedly. I watched Lorraine pick her way down the hill—delicately, as though she was afraid of stepping on the wrong piece of shrubbery. She got in her car and backed out of the cemetery lane. She didn’t look at me again.
I waited an hour to call Angela.
“Angela, it’s Jo,” I said. I usually asked her how she was, but I was still being careful with my words.
“Are those children with you?”
“No,” I said. “Not today.” My hands were shaking, and I was feeling lightheaded now. I needed some water.
“Good,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m not sure I like them coming up there with you.” There was a sharpness to her tone, and it reminded me of how she had spoken to me at the beginning of my employment—back when she was so exhausted all the time.
“Oh,” I said.
“Did Lorraine come up today?” Again that impatience—reminiscent of the way she spoke, sometimes, back before she knew to listen to me. Before she’d learned that I’d been down this road before, many times, and knew the way.
And before I knew what I was doing, I said, “No.”
The first Christmas Dr. Hill was sick, Angela invited me to a party at their house. There were lights everywhere, and little bowls of green- and red-wrapped chocolates all over the house. It was the first party Angela had had in five years, and I guess it was like the calm before the storm—or the burst of energy before the suicide. With my help, she was starting to feel like her life was under control. It wasn’t, and she’d know it before long. But for now she was into a schedule, and Dr. Hill was showered when she got home at night, and his medications were at a nice balance that kept him awake and gentle. She was sleeping a little more.
If things were more manageable for Angela in those months, they were less manageable for me. It had been a difficult stretch. Andy was a squalling newborn. Penny had just fallen into her first round of black depression and had stopped showing up to work and gotten fired for the first time. Then the muffler fell apart. Then we were told that Stephen needed glasses, though I wasn’t sure what a two-year-old was going to do with them. All fall, I’d been thinking about the check that Angela might give me at Christmas. All my families gave me something at the holiday; well-off families like the Hills sometimes gave me a month’s salary or more. Anything would make a difference. A month’s salary would make a good deal of difference.
At the end of the night, Angela approached me holding a big box. I was drinking an egg nog—egg nog’s a nice drink because nobody can tell if you’re drinking and how much—and I tried to smile even though I knew it was the wrong thing. The package was square and hefty and not in the shape of a check. Still, I thought. Maybe inside.
“Merry Christmas,” she said. “We got this for you.”
She handed it to me. She was all done up that night—a black silk party dress, heels, mascara. When she sat next to me, I could smell her perfume—complicated and spicy and invasive. Her earrings were little bells, and they shivered when she moved her head.
“We wanted to get you something personal,” she said. “After all you’ve done for us.” She was still using “we” at this point; she was still signing cards “Love, Angela and Albert.” She hadn’t figured out yet that she was all alone.
“Thank you,” I said, opening the wrapper paper. I saw an enormous expanse of blue sky and the top of an orange pyramid. It was the book about Egypt. I stared.
“I always find it out when I come home,” she said gaily. “So I thought you should have it.”
I stared. It opened naturally to that epic cemetery—the tessellations of tombs, the little bobs of light where people must be living, or trying to, in the great expanse of that breathing ossuary.
“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.”
I opened to the front of the book. I thought maybe there was a check in the front. On the front page it read, “Merry Christmas, Jo! We appreciate everything you do. Fondly, Angela and Albert.” The book, I noticed, had been published in 1978.
She beamed. “It’s quite the book, isn’t it?” she said.
And I said, “It’s amazing.” Because really—I was amazed.
After three days I decided to do it, or something like it. It was a Saturday. Penny had the boys again, and the air was clear and thin. Lorraine was right that the groundskeeper was never watching when it was just me up on the hill; she went into her little office for hours at a time and shirked her responsibilities in whatever ways she saw fit. I’m not one to judge. So I sat in the car, and I got ready to do it. I thought about how Angela couldn’t be hurt by what she didn’t know and how Dr. Hill couldn’t be hurt by anything at all. I got out of the car.
I walked down the hill, feeling queasy and hungover, though I wasn’t. I approached the grave. “I’m sorry, Dr. Hill,” I said. I knelt down, and I started to dig. I dug around on top and produced a handful of what was probably just grainy sand. It must have been just grainy sand, since the ashes were sealed up in that box eighteen inches underground, and I wasn’t about to touch that thing. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if it counted the same—to muck around with someone’s grave, to disturb and uproot it, to take away a piece that used to be a part of it. It felt wrong, and my hands didn’t want to do it—I had to force them, and I started to shake so hard that my teeth chattered. “I’m sorry,” I whispered again. I remembered apologizing to him when I took away the car keys, when I forced him into the shower, when I pressed a needle into his ancient vein. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I told myself it was okay. This was what was called a compromise.
I put the dirt in the pill bottle Lorraine had given me. I wondered what it had been a prescription for, but the label was peeled off. Under my fingernails, the earth of Dr. Hill’s grave looked greenish-black and permanent. I despaired of ever getting it out.
The light was brittle now, coming down in rotating sheets to meet the ocean. In the pill box, the dirt looked like anything—sand from a sand box, dust underneath a bed, the cherished remains of a charming and brilliant man. Lorraine would believe it was what I said it was. And who is to say that it was not?
I walked back up the hill toward the car. The ocean was a celestial gray, and it met the white, apocalyptic sky at an angle that didn’t look quite ninety degrees. It looked more like sixty degrees—more like a half-open jaw. From the hill, it was easy enough to believe the world was flat. It was easy enough to believe the world was round. And the easiest thing of all, perhaps, was to believe you could spend your whole life being wrong, and it would never, never make a difference.
SEE THE ISSUE
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“Helpline” by John Hales
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