by Jared Hegwood
Jeannie’s funeral is on a Sunday. It’s been an unseasonably hot May, the thermometer often near 100. Mack wipes condensation from his sunglasses. Everyone else has taken off their coats, rolled up their sleeves, but Mack hasn’t. He sits alone under the tent in a velvet-draped folding chair, pulling at his bottom lip while the preacher, who looks like James Earl Jones, but blacker, walks the length of the casket, sliding his palm along the cherry finish, preaching a sermon. Jeannie was Mack’s wife. Sweat runs across the preacher’s forehead and he dabs himself with a handkerchief. His passion is reassuring.
The sky is like Nehi Orange. Or Sunkist. It’s unreal.
Mack’s more anxious than he’s ever been. He wants to leave. He’s hungry. His wedding ring has felt tight since he moved it to his right hand. He thinks about the DVDs that came in today’s mail. I should buy a crucifix—for the wall in the kitchen, he thinks. He thinks about Tuesday’s staff brief. And Fear Factor. Fear Factor is on tonight.
He’s glad that Hannah didn’t come after all. He’s glad she asked, but they both knew it was more out of politeness than anything.
Jeannie’s mother, Vonda, is too sick to leave the hospital for the funeral. Vonda has bone marrow cancer and has been on morphine two weeks. She drifts in and out of consciousness and is rarely lucid. “I threw up three times today. I’m not sure what it was, but it sure wanted to leave bad.” Mack was on the phone with her for twenty minutes and she never asked for Jeannie. “I just looked under my sheet and my legs are chicken white.” Jeannie’s father died when she was twelve. “I’ve a joke for you,” she says.
Mack doubts that she’s even begun to register the death of her daughter.
Vonda used to be something. Pictures of her, she looks like an actress in an old movie. Now, it’s just depressing. The bed sores and the veins.
The small crowd hovers and buzzes around in their black suits and skirts. They didn’t know that Jeannie wanted a sermon, practically had Mack swear to it. They mill about, whispering into each other’s ears. “What the hell is this?” “Fuck if it don’t look like rain.” “In the end, there were like twenty-something cars on top of her.” “They had to reattach both her hands.”
A neighbor walks up and touches Mack’s shoulders. She squeezes a little then leans down. “I hope you don’t mind, Mack, but we’re gonna go. The wife’s expecting us home soon.” Mack doesn’t speak. Everyone else leaves soon after, says their goodbyes to Mack. He notices most never really looking at the grave.
Mack thinks about the grapefruit juice in his refrigerator and how Jeannie will never finish it. Mack thinks about what to make for dinner tonight. Mack thinks about how caskets might settle differently with the dirt on top of them gone to mud.
Last week, he and Jeannie saw a marathon of Lucio Fulci movies. She’d kicked a leg up on the seat in front of her, smacking on the popcorn, pointing out the intricate differences between American, European and Caribbean zombie deaths. Mack laughed at the gore.
He needs to visit Vonda. There’s nobody left for her.
After the last car drives out of the lot, the preacher asks Mack if he should continue. “No, thank you, that’s fine,” Mack says.
Hannah’s sitting on the hood of her car in the Texaco parking lot across from Mack and Jeannie’s apartment. She nurses a Big Peach. When he drives up, she slides off, tugs her shirt down. The shirt says FOOLY COOLY in red. She sees his face and hers curls down. “Hey, you okay?” She caps her drink and tosses it in a dumpster.
“Yeah,” he nods. “Yeah. There was a message about an overdue library book of Jeannie’s. Something Teachings something.”
“Ah,” Hannah says. She leans against his truck. “I may be responsible for that. I borrowed it from your truck.”
“I’m just glad we weren’t doing anything that night. I don’t think I could’ve dealt with that so well, you know?” Mack slaps his cheek, catches a moth against his skin. “Fuck’s sake.”
Hannah points to his hand, the tanline where his ring used to be. “How long do you think it will take for that to go away?”
“However long it takes, I suppose. Isn’t that something women know?”
“Well,” says Hannah. She opens a truck door, reaches into the glove compartment. “It’s not like you weren’t going to leave her anyway, right?” She fishes out a wad of napkins.
Mack wipes his face. “Right. I was.”
Mack has never had trouble sleeping but he misses Hannah. He wasn’t so worried about this first night anyway. Jeannie worked nights at the jigsaw puzzle factory and he’d learned to sleep alone. Hannah never stayed over. He hadn’t liked the thought of it and Hannah hadn’t either. Mornings, Jeannie would crawl into bed with him and they’d talk the half hour or so before Mack would make for the bathroom to shave. Sometimes, Jeannie would lay back into bed, fall straight into sleep. He’d admire her face, her neck. He never needed an alarm clock. When he woke an hour late one morning last week, he knew something was wrong.
And now, this new clock from Target tells him, in angry red numbers: 2:35.
“One time Jeannie and I were over for Christmas,” Mack says to Vonda. “Audell opened a gift from you; a tracksuit, I think. Yellow. She, for some reason I don’t know, she threw it back at you, hit you in the face.”
Mack takes a sip from a bottle of water. He twists the cap back and forth, in the space between tight and loose.
“I’ve recently become aware, Vonda,” he says. “Of just how quickly atrophy can set in, in a person, without them even being aware of it.”
Vonda’s asleep. A male nurse checks her vitals, replaces the drip. Mack watches the nurse go through his checks, making notes on the clipboard at the edge of the bed, wiping dried saliva from the corners of Vonda’s mouth. He says Vonda’s been out for two days then offers to get Mack a soda.
“I was just leaving,” Mack says, fingering his keys.
Mack is face down in the tub with his legs kicked up, his eyes open. He opens his mouth, lets in warm, bath water and blows out. Bubbles rush over his eyebrows, cheeks. Some cling to the vacuum in his nostrils. Wet hair mats at the back of his neck, but this is the only distinct sensation as Mack might well be only the eyes that see cracks in the porcelain with, the knobby chain on the plug. The greenness of water mixed with bath oils. He had wanted to remember Jeannie’s smell.
Mack thinks about Jeannie in the taxi on the way to the way to her brother’s funeral, crying so hard she started to hyperventilate. When her fingers dug into his side, he didn’t say anything.
He thinks about the trip in her old Tercel, halfway to her cousin’s in Skokie, pulled off the side of the highway, only fifty yards away from the road, but enough behind the trees so that no one might see. She wore these overalls he hated—ones her father wore that were too big for her. She slipped right out of them. Mack remembers how hot her skin was, her bent over the seat, one leg angled ridiculously to compensate for the gear shift. Sweat rolling over her shoulder blades like raindrops on glass.
He thinks about Jeannie holding up that small pink bloom, how she stroked it like a kitten, the way her eyebrows lifted as she took in that deep breath.
Mack flips face up, the water at his hairline and notices, for the first time, the intricate stitching of the ceiling.
Hannah sits next to him at the staff brief, chews on her pencil. She’s in Accounts. Mack works in Plans and Programs.
Hannah’s wearing an Oxford shirt with pink and brown pinstripes. A Hello Kitty barrette pins back some of her hair. Through the third and fourth button he can see her chest, her refrigerator white skin and a cotton bra. She has a little weight on her and while that’s never been Mack’s thing—all he wants in the world right now is to slide his hand into her shirt to pull her close. She sketches thumbnails of fruit bowls and vases, drawing ‘x’s across them, working out perspective. Mack feels the sudden urge to suck on her neck.
He looks at his wedding band to remind himself.
Walking out of the boardroom, Hannah asks, “How’s Vonda holding up?”
Mack stares at the dresser, dozens of makeup brushes, face creams, lipstick bolts and nail polish standing like soldiers at attention. Garnet. Alpha-Beta Hydroxy Peel-Off Masque. All-day lip crayons. Off-ivory. Ceramic smooth. Pink pastel. Small bottles of hand lotion, the directions all in French. Toe separators. Nail files. Pools of mismatched or solo earrings and loose bracelets snaking around the makeup bottles. With a wide sweep of his arm, Mack pulls everything off the dresser into a box and slides it underneath their bed.
Mack stares at the dresser. He stares at the wide gash his arm has made in the dust.
The phone rings and Mack reaches over the bed to check the caller ID.
“Hi,” he says into the receiver. He imagines Hannah smiling into the other end.
Mack hops off the bed, straightens the sheets.
Mack visits Vonda. He pulls her breakfast cart aside and slides a chair closer to her bed. He tells her that without Jeannie’s added income, things will be getting tight, less manageable by himself. He will have to move soon.
“Me too, me too. The super’s no good here. Let me tell you a joke.”
Mack tells her that if he’s to continue paying what the insurance won’t, she’ll have to move, too.
“The joke is about a horse and a cowboy.”
Mack tells her what a hospice is and a bout a nice one in Bay St. Louis. Lots of carpet there, nice chairs, paintings and music if she wants. There won’t be any more monitoring machines or tests or tubes. No doctors unless she wants one.
“A cowboy is trapped in an Indian camp and he sends his horse to get help.”
He tells her about mornings near the beach, watching the waves, the tide riding up between her toes. He tells her the difference between Terns and Gulls, between the Common American and the Burgomaster.
He shows her a folder-up, wax paper brochure with casinos on the front.
He tells her things will be easier this way.
“Ah, I’ve always liked that joke. It tickles me so much.”
Mack and Hannah tucked away in the ferns, holding off in the deep left of his yard, lying back on a blanket. Hannah has brought a radio. She pulls up her shirt to roll a cigarette on her stomach. Her thick fingers deftly work the roll and she licks one end, light the other. She reaches with her spare hand, takes hold of Mack’s. He gives back a gentle squeeze.
Hannah turns on her side and traces his index finger down the inside ridge of his neck. “This is called the sternocleidomastoid. I learned about it in an art class.”
“Sternoclydomaster,” he says.
“Sternocleidomastoid,” she repeats.
“Weird,” he says.
“I know,” she says.
Cole Porter plays on the radio. “I think it’s the sexiest muscle, ever,” she says.
“I’m thinking about bringing Vonda into the house,” Mack says, rolling over to face her.
Mack opens the first from his second six-pack, makes out the grocery list while going through the cupboard. He’s listening to Elton John belt out “Rocket Man.” Cn’d veg, he writes. Sgtti + sauce. Hlprs. Fish. He gauges the vegetable oil carefully. How long can this last?