by Alexa Mergen
The kitchen window let onto a tall pink rose bush and for years Marie kept an apple-shaped hummingbird feeder filled with sugar-water hanging from a thickened branch. When she stood at the sink scrubbing dishes, birds buzzed the window.
Then, the year of the worst drought ants got so numerous they covered the feeder within minutes of hanging, no matter how well she greased the pole on which it hung. The ants brought to my mind how the Las Vegas Strip had changed from a promenade for leisurely strolls to a shaft funneling masses of pheromone-blinded people. In 1985, a few months before Marie retired from the show, I would meet her at one o’clock in the morning to mill among tourists and marvel at how things change. Yes, they do.
After the ant invasion, Marie lost interest in the hummers. Dust collected on the porcelain Anna’s hummingbird and the laminated card identifying the western species sat in the desk drawer. What will I do with these things after she dies? She has scripted her final day and burial but given me little additional direction.
Lately, Marie wears on a chain around her neck the space-age symbol of three linked ellipses with a capital “A” in the middle for atheist. You can know a person most of her life, sweat beside her under stage lights, feel her hold on your hand as you cry a baby into the world, and still learn things about her so illuminating the white sun shines brighter.
“This is my last act,” Marie said two weeks ago, then dug a hole to bury her journals. We found her in the backyard standing on the mound of freshly turned earth. “Cindy, everything I want anyone to know about me I am telling you and Frankie.” She nodded to my daughter, standing beside the gray wood of Marie’s apricot tree, six feet of strength in blue jeans and t-shirt, broad shoulders softened by blonde curls. The sight of her makes my uterus twitch after 36 years.
Frankie and I have little more than a week to find homes for Marie’s seven showgirl gowns and four headdresses. Marie gaily calls the costumes her bombonieres, as if the jewels and feathers were candied almonds serving as favors at a baptism. We sift through names in a black leather address book and contact old acquaintances.
Tonight, I set the baby monitor within Marie’s reach and take my monitor with me next door where I find Frankie waiting at the round table, face pale in the computer’s glow. Sitting across from her I read names that she taps into a search engine. We are Marie’s scouts in the borderlands where past and present meet.
“Check Barry Urribe,” I say.
After a moment, Frankie says, “Jackpot.” I stand at the counter spooning coffee crystals into a mug. “Urribe owns an irrigation supply company in Elko. Think he’d come down?”
I shake the creamer canister, “Marie doesn’t want to see anybody, love.” Hot water from the electric kettle melds crystals and powder. “But he’ll want to know.” I choose a yellow post-it for Barry’s spot. He calls for caution. I add additional spoonfuls of creamer to my mug. Frankie gave up attempts to reform my eating habits a few years ago–about the time Marie was first diagnosed with melanoma–and I am grateful every time I toast a Pop Tart and drink Nescafe. We keep a cupboard in Frankie’s house for my junk food. Fueled by coffee for me and chocolate milk for her, we proceed through the address book moving quickly until “W,” there are several, and are slowed up again by “Y.” We reach Zimmerman at dawn.
“My head is more full of names than ever.” Frankie works as a ticket agent for Overland Airline. She gets people to where they need to go whether they deserve it or not.
“Favorites?” I ask.
“Favorite names? If I’d had a girl I would have named her Palacia.”
“Pretty. For a boy?” I am genuinely curious.
The name games Marie and I played riding the bus to work, when our skin was soft and unblemished, come to mind. I chose “Frankie” for my baby long before she was conceived. Marie said she would name a girl Gabrielle and a boy Gabe but she never played the role of mother and never missed it. Our conversation stalls and in the lull I hear the wind rattling the chimes outside.
“Tell me about Sinatra and the hat again, Mom,” Frankie says, closing the computer’s lid.
“I’m worn out, Frankie,” I rinse my mug in the sink.
“You said he pulled a straw hat over a man’s head so hard the brim ended up around the guy’s neck.”
“That’s so. Ask Marie.”
“And you named me for someone like him?” This is an old quarrel. I say my lines.
“He was a different man when he was performing. A dream.” Frankie shakes her head. She is tired. I think of Marie a few yards away, humping it like a soldier to her final breath. Suddenly, I want my daughter to understand me. “I named you for someone who made people happy. Who made my world more beautiful with his voice.”
“It seems silly, all that fuss and fanfare back then.”
“Glamour. It was about glamour.” Energy rushes through me with the caffeine. “The clothes Marie and I wore….” The dresses were so heavy with beadwork they slithered on hangers. We showgirls helped each other into them.
“Cut glass and dyed feathers.”
“No. Mystery, light, fantasy. Excitement. Gangsters parked their Cadillacs in the sand in those days. Men wore hats and ties among the sagebrush. We girls brought color and life. Everybody was making it up as we went along. There was a casino called Sal Sagev, Las Vegas spelled backwards.” Frankie’s shredding a paper napkin into what looks like a mouse nest. I can’t stop. “Anything went. It was sand and dust out here. The clanking of slots and the groan of earth movers split the desert open. It was a powerful place for two spunky gals like Marie and me willing to work.”
Frankie frowned. “I want to do this like Marie wants but I don’t know. She’s asking a lot.”
“Don’t be unkind.”
“This is all so dramatic.” She is winding herself up. “Marie is old and sick. She needs to accept it’s over.” My daughter looks at me.
“Accept it’s over?” What is turning her so hard? “I think Marie accepts it’s over since she’s planning her own suicide.” Frankie shivers in the hot night. “You’re wrong about what she can ask for, what she needs.” When I hear the tone of my voice I know I will fight for Marie’s wishes. “You’re talking about a woman who was compared to a goddess….”
“A drunk guy calling out ‘Venus!’ in a lounge?”
“Don’t interrupt me.” I actually have my hands on my hips like a stout housewife. “Barry Urribe was not drunk when he said that. It wasn’t like now when people in track suits stumble in and out of refrigerated casinos looking for the cheapest mojitos. It was about beauty.” I’m inspired, “You know what? Beauty is a drama. It’s illusion.” I wish I had photos handy, the black and white snaps from clubs in the 50s and 60s, even into the early 70s when people still had some style. Frankie has seen them before. “Your Aunt Marie was beautiful. For some, baby girl, beauty is their truth.” I know Frankie feels me looking at her though she will not raise her eyes. I step behind her and place my hands on her shoulders. “I know it has never been easy for you,” I say softly. “No dad around. A showgirl mom. I know what people said about Marie and me.” Frankie looks up, eyes round and dark with tears like when I picked her up after school dozens of years ago. “But do this not for me, or Marie, but for yourself. This is the time to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
“The saying is you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
“Watch us,” I say, and braid my daughter’s golden hair.
Awake at eight after a few hours sleep, I am so comfortable in my white silk nightie and satin sheets I wish the world were taking the day off. Once you have worn elegant clothes you have a taste for a touch of class. Frou-frou nighties of satin and lace and robes trimmed in fake feathers are my indulgence. Once you play coy for a roomful of strangers, secrets become part of your family. Not even Frankie knows about my lingerie. I wear worn plaid shirts and jeans around her, like the cowgirl I would have chosen to be if things could have been simpler, if I had stayed in California.
Sixty-three isn’t old but Marie and I pushed our bodies hard. Bunions mangle our feet, arthritis tugs at our backs, knees don’t cooperate, and our hair is thin from pulling it under diadems and wigs. I’m drinking too much coffee and hold a cup in my hand now as I stand in the miniature bay window of my in-law apartment above the garage. I deeded the house to Frankie last year. Witnessing what’s happening to Marie makes me glad of it.
Watching the street’s children march to the corner to wait for the school bus, reminds me of standing there when Frankie was small, my mind sorting the day ahead–which bills absolutely needed paying, a mental note to buy new blades for my razor, whether I could get the wash done and hung out to dry before I collapsed with fatigue. Frankie as a little girl held my hand but faced forward, ready as ever for whatever came next. I don’t know how I ended up with such a practical child. When the bus pulled up, she would let go and board, looking back only after securing a seat in the window. From there, she nodded at me as if we were associates.
I need to call Barry before I go next door to see Marie. But it’s too early. I follow my coffee with a slice of cold pizza never minding the grease congealed in circles of pepperoni. Changing from my delicates to yesterday’s duds, I gather tape, scissors, box and tissue paper to pack Marie’s coral gown for shipping. This one goes to Annalisa, a girl we met after we left the stage. About 10 years ago, in the nineties, she tracked down Marie, who was legend among performers after the Tropicana show, appearing at her door here in Henderson one day. I watched the girl park an open-topped jeep in front of the house, step down in flowered mini skirt and tank top, ponytail of black hair swinging. Marie has thrived on conversation and novelty. She skipped out of her house to meet the stranger, dressed oddly enough in similar clothes. My friend could wear cotton prints as elegantly as cashmere and transform herself from wealthy widow to doyenne to country girl depending on her mood. She confided to me that in her next life, if she believed in next lives, she would be a spy.
When Marie reached the curb, she took Annalisa’s hand with both of her own to lead her back inside. She recruited me to join them, and we pushed Marie’s living room furniture to the wall to teach Annalisa tricks of our trade. All afternoon, we showed her how to see the stage as a whole, how space is reshaped by gestures. We held her hands as she breathed with eyes closed so she could feel the movement of energy up her arms. We took turns spinning, trying to outdo each other by fixing our eyes on a still point, laughing and weaving from spells of dizziness. Pooped out, we lined up on the sofa like starlings on a wire and sipped sweaty glasses of iced tea from pink bending straws. We never made it to see Annalisa perform in Las Vegas. She sent Marie a photo of herself skimpily clad in what appeared to be underwear with beads glued on. Maybe just as well.
The dress folds where knees, waist and shoulders would be. I lean into it to fill my eyes with the rows of fish-scale sequins. Our dresses in the 60s and 70s came from garment factories in Los Angeles. Delivery boys fought over who would carry the boxes to our dressing rooms and begged us to try them on. In the 1980s, the dresses started coming from overseas. Even so, we had a seamstress on hand, Lisa Blackwell. I can picture her, pincushions on each wrist reattaching a bead or strip of braid while the band played the first notes of the score. The audience sat near the stage and was privy to powder on our cheeks; we could see the diamonds on ladies’ fingers. Lisa liked Marie and me, telling us we were good girls making something of ourselves. She applauded when we showed her photos of our homes. Lisa would wait for us to wipe our faces clean with cold cream and then walk with us to the bus stops: she stood on one side of the street going eastbound and Marie and I stood on the other going west. Winter nights, Lisa and her navy blue wool coat disappeared in the darkness and she would call to us across the street, “Night hides my skin. I can see you two like twin moons. Be careful going home.” The day after Frankie was born, Lisa visited me in the hospital with a stuffed kitten for my girl.
Sealed and addressed, the package with the coral gown weighs 18 pounds on the scale. Seeing the box sends a chill up my spine. For the first time, I am glad Marie does not want to be boxed up and packed in the earth or burned up and returned in a jar. I set the package by the door and find my phone on the counter.
“Elko Irrigation. Barry speaking.”
“Barry, Barry Urribe?” I slip onto the bar stool.
“I’m a friend of Marie’s. Cindy Gil.”
I imagine Barry in a low-ceilinged office carpeted in burgundy. Mountains surround Elko but the town itself isn’t much more than cheap, flat buildings and wide streets, like most of Nevada. It’s as if people know instinctively anything they build will eventually dry up and blow away. Even Reno is barely distinguishable from a traveling carnival. Las Vegas, of course, explodes generalizations. She’s transformed herself from a traveler’s oasis of meadows to an addict’s opium dream. “Marie?”
“Marie Teal. From Henderson. Las Vegas, really. Remember The Reign Forest casino? It’s been awhile.”
A choking sound bounces by satellite down the state from Barry to me. “Awhile? Thirty years is awhile.” Choke. Choke. “Fantastic.” Choke. Choke. “Hang on.” The phone receiver clatters as he sets it on a desk. I wander with my tiny phone to the window. The blankness of the sky suggests the clouds will be making no effort today to keep the sun away. “Cindy,” Barry says after he retrieves the phone. “Terrific to hear from you.” He coughs. “Emphysema.” I realize he was laughing earlier. He is happy to hear from me. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Kneeling on the bench seat under the window, I pray in my sloppy way that I can find the words to tell this man that a woman he loved in his youth is dying, and wants him to come say something.
This has been a bad day. It’s hot, like yesterday, and Barry is coming after all. Truthfully, I hoped he would not in spite of Marie’e surprise request. Mirrors hidden, she has not seen herself in two week. Off all of her medications and intravenous fluids she is flimsy as a hatched bird. Every time she vomits, we wipe her face and hands; her wisps of hair are always damp. Her bones ache and her stomach hurts. Sitting beside her is like being tossed on a stormy sea with no shore in sight. The doctor, an old friend, sent his niece to assist us. Paula is studying to be a nurse’s aide. She is large, soft and gentle. With her shiny skin and thick neck, her bundle of coppery hair flaming atop her head, she makes Marie appear brittle and pale as creosote bush. Scabs of cancer spread across Marie’s face, neck and décolletage. They remind me of the concrete foundations poured and abandoned throughout the Mojave in the haste of investors seeking profit.
Paula sings pop songs to distract her from scratching. I don’t know what Marie thinks of the music but she lays back and surrenders to, “Oh, baby, you’re the one I need; loving you I don’t need to plead ‘cause baby baby you’re the boy for me.” Death is, after all, absurd. I beg a blessing from the gods for this doctor’s niece who seems unfazed by sleeplessness or the tediousness of tending a body. When I ask her if she will take a break she shrugs, “It’s only a few days. And I need the money.”
The oscillating fan points on Paula who suffers the heat uncomplainingly. I have a call in to Sugar to pick up a window air conditioner and install it for us. Marie’s swamp cooler can’t keep up. The heat in the room is pushing sour smells from the linens. Marie begged us not to change the sheets again as it’s too painful for her to be moved. Dehydrated, she rarely needs the bed pan. A month ago, Marie would have objected to an air conditioner. She won’t notice now.
Sugar came through. Marie likes her and sat up prettily as could be with her head swathed in a paisley silk scarf and her lips tinted handily by Paula with sparkly pink gloss. All the years she owned this house, Marie recruited neighbor boys to build bookshelves or plant a new tree. This last year, she turned to a girl she saw pedaling down our street on a bike with a homemade trailer. Sugar thought bike trailers might catch on and she could sell them. Turns out no one wants to bike through the desert to run errands when, if you are not at the extreme edge of destitution, you have a car.
Marie hired Sugar to design and build an elaborate wardrobe for the costumes she had saved. Marie added more and more details to the wardrobe’s design as they went along, constructing it right in the living room. When Frankie accused her of making work to keep Sugar employed Marie said, “What do you know?” When I asked, “Wouldn’t the bedroom be better for a closet?” Marie quipped, “Maybe I’ll slap a star on the front door, my name on a brass plaque, and make this the dressing room.”
The round wardrobe revolves like the portal to a department store. She strung rope lights throughout and rigged a work lamp to serve as a spotlight. She fitted the door with a remote control so Marie can spin it from her chair.
“Well, I don’t watch television anymore,” Marie told Frankie.
“Just your old dresses whirling,” my daughter said, probably wondering if it was time to move away.
Sugar wears her hair short as a boy’s. “Wish I could have cut my hair like that when I was your age,” Marie told Sugar yesterday as the girl lifted the air conditioner from the box and set it on the windowsill. When it was in place, she walked back over to Marie and pushed back the sleeve of her thermal shirt. “You want one of these, too?” Marie looked at the colorful tattoo of an armada of ships then at Sugar whose eyes were rimmed with the sort of thick, long lashes we aspired to to when we glued on ribbons of false frills before a show. “Nobody ought to forget Columbus,” Sugar said and winked. “I suppose not,” Marie said and wiggled her eyebrows. Frankie and I breathed easier to see Marie laugh and were content to not ask questions about Sugar’s body art. After plugging in the air conditioner, Sugar instructed Marie to “Stay cool” and gathered up the styrofoam and cardboard packaging to throw away.
The doctor came by to check on Marie. She does not like him, but I think we can trust him. If her death were to come out as assisted suicide he would be in more trouble than any of us. A woman can sell her body legally in the Silver State, but not end its functioning. The doctor assures me that cause of death, should there by a coroner’s report, would be listed as dehydration. Frankie and me, and Sugar, I suppose, are her family. There is no one to object.
“That’s life…you’re riding high in April, shot down in May, but I know I’m going to change that tune,” Marie sings. Her voice has the thinness of a shoji screen. She pauses for breath and picks up the lyrics. “…But if there’s nothing shaking come this here July I’m going to roll myself up into a big ball and die.” She is sitting up in her mechanical bed. I’ve laid a soft, pink afghan around her shoulders which, along with the exertion of singing, makes her cheeks less sallow. I sit in a chair beside her bed with a clipboard resting on my knees. Frankie took Paula to Super Foods with her though the girl was reluctant to leave her charge. When I feel tired and paranoid I wonder if the doctor has instructed Paula to keep an eye on us. Cleverly, Marie requested mashed sweet potatoes from the deli and pressed upon Paula how much it would mean if she picked out scented lotions. Pleasing the patient justified the leave-taking and Frankie drove Paula away.
When Sugar calls out, “Ahoy!” in her pirate voice, I let her into Marie’s living room so we can plan. For the next hour, Marie reviews the details of her obsequies.
“Your obsessions?” Sugar asks, fingering a cigarette she can’t light in the house. She shoves a piece of nicotine gum in her mouth and anchors the cigarette between her skull and ear.
“Obsequies,” Marie says, irritated at being slowed down. Barry is scheduled to come soon. “Look it up.”
Sugar flips through the paperback dictionary Marie keeps near her crossword book. “Funeral rites.” Marie nods, eyes closed. “From Middle English–like the Hobbit,” Sugar laughs.
“That’s Middle Earth,” I say.
Sugar lifts her shoulders and drops them in a gesture larger than a shrug. “It says here it’s an obsolete word.” She holds the spot on the page with her finger then looks up at Marie. “Ah, I get it. Origin means ‘dutiful service.’”
Tears fill Marie’s eyes. I have never seen her cry. Not even when we were laid off for a few months during union strikes at the casino and submitted applications to every shop on the Strip. A jewelry store hired Marie. She was able to make her mortgage but had to wear a cocktail girl’s outfit and tolerate the owner feeling her up when she washed the front windows every morning.
“Thank you for doing all this,” she says. “I know it’s weird.”
“Weird?” Sugar asks. When she smiles the rings in her cheek pop out and a tongue stud flashes. She picks up a strand of my shoulder length hair which is now three colors, brown, blonde and gray. I have let myself go, as my mother would have said. Sugar lets drop my hair and tugs at my t-shirt with its Mickey Mouse decal crusty from age and “Happiest Place on Earth” faded to “ha lac on ear.” “Weird, nah,” she says and walks to the wardrobe. One-by-one she lifts the three remaining headdresses from their styrofoam models leaving the blank white heads to stare at us. The closet is empty. Every dress has found a home, including the lemon yellow satin to a granddaughter of Lisa’s. I already received a thank you note from her that made me weep. Two headdresses get packed tomorrow. We’ll need one.
Having crowned us, Sugar leans in with a point-and-shoot camera she extracts from her cargo pants. Before she can click, Marie pushes the girl’s hand away. “Don’t,” she says.
Sugar and I stand to leave. This will be the first time Marie has been alone in days, that is to say, without one of her friends. She’ll be with Barry. Before I go, I ask, “Just curious, doll, where did you get the idea for this obsequies ritual you’re cooking up?”
The corners of Marie’s mouth lift slyly and she lowers her eyelids. “Remember Ben?”
She nods. “His dad was Sioux from Nebraska, married a Washoe Paiute. He taught me all sorts of things.”
“You’re too much,” I straighten the apricot-orange carnations in their green glass vase. She asked for fresh flowers. “Always learning, huh?”
Marie tucks her chin, cocks her head and places her palm on her breast. “That’s life and I can’t deny it,” she croons.
“Michael Buble,” Sugar says from where she stands adjusting Marie’s pillows.
“Don’t Buble me. I already gave Paula an earful about Buble.”
“Frank Sinatra,” I correct.
“Should have known.”
“Get out of here, both of you,” Marie sounds genuinely annoyed.
Barry arrives a few minutes after Sugar chugs off in her white van. He drives a new red truck with shiny chrome. He’s short so he doesn’t do much for me, but Marie has always liked fellows she calls “compact.” I am betting she’ll still find him good-looking. He shakes my hand as he steps down from the truck in the driveway in cowboy boots, yes, but, to his credit, without too much of a heel. He is broad-chested with thick gray hair like a Schnauzer and wire-rimmed glasses that draw attention to his green eyes. Like a lot of guys in Nevada, he wears a bolero tie over a pearl-buttoned shirt without irony, and a big belt buckle with bootcut jeans. He sports a corduroy jacket with a shooting patch on the shoulder; an empty gun rack in the window of the truck cab let’s me know he’s earned the right.
“Cindy,” he says, as he takes my hand. “Longtime. I am glad to see you, in spite of the circumstances. Thanks for calling.”
He smells like cedar, leather, sage and gasoline. I lean in to kiss him on the cheek. I’m not this close to a man very often and will not miss the opportunity to feel beard stubble against my lips.
“Well,” he tucks his hands into his front pockets as I pull away. “Where’s Marie?”
I indicate her house with a nod. Barry takes in the sunflowers, stoic in summer heat, the roses dropping petals to the tan bark in a last hurrah. Marie’s house is teal blue with buttercup yellow trim. It looks like it belongs in a tropical place.
“You have an hour.” I open the door and step aside for him. He looks at me and draws his eyebrows together. Then he ducks his head to enter even though the lintel is not low. The house is dark and cool. “Cindy?” I hear Marie call. She sounds cross.
“Marie, marvelous Marie,” Barry says as he enters, removing his hat. “It’s Barry. Urribe.”
I walk to the side yard to water the pomegranate trees. The urge to stand under the window and eavesdrop appalls me. It’s like I am nine years old, spying on my sisters and their beau. Besides, the air conditioner is too loud. I wouldn’t be able to hear.
There’s always something to do in a garden. After I water, I sweep the path and pull crab grass from the flowerbeds. Seeing Frankie and Paula pull up startles me from a thought I instantly lose. I stall them by the curb, asking what’s new on store shelves and did Paula find a nice lotion for Marie. I figure Barry can exit and the rest of us can resume our vigil. So when Paula cries, “Who’s that?” I whip around.
Barry is stomping across the lawn, fists clenched by his side.
“He looks like he’s coming to get you, Mom,” Frankie steps in front of me. “You must be Barry,” she visibly relaxes her shoulders, modulates her voice as I have heard her do with a disgruntled airline passenger.
“Frankie,” he stops in front of her like a bulldog holding his ground. “Marie says you are a good kid.”
Frankie glances over her shoulder at me. Paula has gotten back in the car and turned on the radio. She looks frightened. “You had a good visit,” Frankie states, neutrally.
“Good visit? She’s dying. You know she plans to kill herself?”
“Hey, hey, quiet down,” I say from behind my daughter’s strong back. “That’s not exactly public knowledge.”
“You,” Barry backs away, catching his breath. “How can you?”
Stepping around Frankie, I stand beside her. “Barry,” my hands open like a supplicant’s, “it’s awful. It’s terrible. I love Marie. Frankie loves Marie. That girl cowering in the car has been with Marie 24/7.”
“Why did you bring me here?” he interrupts.
I can’t speak. Frankie answers. “She asked for you. You’re the only one she asked for.” She looks him in the eye. “She’s 63, dying, and you’re who she asked for, you ungrateful old cowboy.”
“Frankie,” I take her wrist. She shakes off my grip to sit in the car with Paula. I turn to Barry. “I don’t know what I can say.”
He swallows. “What you are doing is immoral and illegal.”
“Barry, please,” I look at the window where Marie is surely watching us from the other side of the sheer white curtain. “This is what she wants. I explained the situation.”
“I thought she was dying at home, with dignity. Not committing suicide.”
“You saw her now. You saw how she looks. How she is suffering. You knew her once,” I smile entreatingly. “Marie does things her own way.” I blink back tears. “She is fearless.”
As if they are contagious, like yawns, tears seep from Barry’s eyes. He waves an arm toward the house and my eyes follows it. I see fissures where the stucco needs patching. “This is wrong.” He walks away looking oddly larger as he recedes, as if gaining stature. He takes his time in the truck, securing seat belt, adjusting air conditioning, slowly backing out into the street and leaving me to stare at his tailgate.
“Men are scary,” Paula says stepping from her car to the sidewalk.
“No,” Frankie gathers bags of groceries in her arms. “Men are a pain in the ass.”
“Not always,” I say. They have this under control. “I’m going up to my place.” A glass of wine and a thick novel never sounded so good. “Tell Marie I’ll see her in the morning.”
“I know you wonder why I am an atheist,” Marie says, kneading two rubber balls to keep her hands from fidgeting. “I don’t want you guessing after I’m gone.”
I’m shelling peas in my lap. In a parallel universe we could be sitting on a sun-filled porch, happily passing a late middle-aged day. But we’re in Marie’s living room, a sick bed center stage. “I’m listening.” Marie won’t eat the peas but Frankie will. The green smells like spring and with the cool air from the window unit I can pretend it’s not 105 degrees outside.
“It’s the perfectibility of man, I mean mankind. That’s what I believe. That we’re all we’ve got and that’s actually quite fantastic.” I’m nodding, aware that next week I won’t be able to hear her voice. “Believing in a being beyond us gives us too many outs. It’s like our shows.” I smile, encouraging her happy rambling. “The first day of a new routine we’re bumping into each other, costumes don’t fit right, lights are wrong, the music not in synch.”
“Practice,” I say.
“Practice. I’m sure it’s why we’re here. And to not miss a step, literally. There’s no absolution.”
I don’t really care if she worships amaryllis bulbs. I want to know about her heart. I place the bowl of shelled peas in her lap so Marie can finger their round coolness. Her touch is extra sensitive even as her body shuts down. She dips her hand in like a ladle, scoops and lets the peas fall releasing their scent again and again. “Are you sorry,” I ask, “that you and Barry never got married?”
She laughs and the bowl tips. I catch it and set it on the table. “Married?” It takes all her strength to reach for my arm and grab it. “I never wanted to get married, but….”
“Oh, I wish we had spent more time together making love.”
“You and Barry?”
“We kissed. We petted. I was so good then. He was honorable.” She draws out the word and rolls her eyes, “Religious. He wanted me properly, to be sealed in a Mormon temple.” She chuckles. “Can you imagine?”
“And, why not?”
“I left all that, in Peteley. Church. Family. I found what I was looking for, here.” She sits back. “No regrets. I rode a star. Remember that scene, me dropping in silver from the rafters onto center stage while you and the other girls entered from the wings? How many people can say they rode a star?”
“Not many.” I am not convinced. “No regrets? At all?”
She sighs the sigh of a person with nothing to lose. “Like I said, sex.”
“Sex with Barry?” I picture his tight-lipped face accusing me of being immoral as we squinted at each other in the afternoon glare.
“Cindy,” she pats her blankets until she finds a piece of paper tucked away. “Read this.”
I take it. Just then the air conditioner kicks off. Without the machine’s hum the room is quiet. “Not plainly, never quite herself she shows,” I am reading a poem. “Just a swift glance of her illumined smile/Along the landscape goes;/just a soft hint of singing, to beguile/A man from all his toil.”
“That’s Venus.” Marie’s eyes shine feverishly. “Turns out his wife–she’s dead, too–was an English teacher. He found this in one of her books.”
“Touching,” I say. “And you’re not dead.”
“Soon.” Marie stretches her arms over her head though her face reveals twinges of pain. “Love,” Marie says resting her arms again. “Beauty. Pleasure. I am going to miss these things.”
“Oh, honey,” I say. And, almost say: we don’t have to go through with this. I picture the bottles of barbiturates in the cupboard beside the saltines. They could be flushed down the toilet.
“Cindy, that man, after all these years, sat where you are sitting and described step-by-step how he would have made love to me. If we had. When we were younger. Kiss by kiss. Stroke by stroke.” I sit up in my chair. Marie’s cheeks flush. “Cindy, I felt such a release as if his fingers were on me, as if he were in me. You know what I mean?” She is serene. She is beautiful. I am not sure how this happens. She is lit from within. Softly, she sings, “If I thought it wasn’t worth one single try I’d jump on a bird and then I’d fly….that’s life.”
I brush her cheeks with my lips and smooth my hand across her forehead. Paula comes in with a sedative. Maybe she was listening. It doesn’t matter.
“Rest,” I say. “Paula’s here to help with the pain.” Marie turns her head to the pillow and I step away.
When I come down at dawn the next day after a sweaty sleep, I find Paula in the vague light urging Marie to swallow.
“Her pain is really, really, really bad,” Paula says. Shadows circle her own eyes.
I shake my head to erase vestiges of a nightmare. I’d dreamed the ants were back, covering Marie’s prone body and Paula’s soft form. “I’ll call your uncle.” I pull my phone from my floppy sweatpants.
“Cindy,” Paula says, setting down the plastic cup of water and pulling me to the hallway. Marie groans from her bed. She does not notice me.
“Yeah,” I tap through the phone’s contact list.
“My uncle knows about that Barry guy.”
“What about him? He’s an old friend of Marie’s.”
“Ah, that he was kind of upset, you know? He told you we were breaking the law.”
“You’re kidding me, Paula.” I flip-closed the phone.
“I was scared. So I told my uncle.” Her young voice suggests the logic connecting her statements is irrefutable.
Once, when I was a teenager in Los Angeles, I slapped my little brother for being a coward when the family needed us strong. My arm twinges with the desire to hit Paula. I take a breath instead. “What did he say?”
“Just…you might not want to call him.”
Marie groans from the living room. Paula actually puts her hands over her ears. I feel as I do at the end of a long plane ride: it’s almost over, I tell myself. No matter what happens next.
“Paula, I know this is getting to be too much.” In the dark hallway I see outlines of framed photos of Marie’s stage days. “Go home. You’ve done enough.”
“Yeah. Collect your stuff. I’ll pay you right now.” On the shelf, Marie keeps an envelope of cash. I count 10 one hundred dollar bills. Paula watches me.
“My stuff’s packed,” she says, biting her lower lip.
I hand her the money. When she protests it’s too much I say, “No, it’s really not. Besides Marie won’t need it, right?” That’s when Paula starts to cry, silent tears that pool in her eyes before spilling. I should offer to drive her to the bus stop along the highway, but I don’t. She walks away with purse and tote bag slung over the same shoulder. I see her stop at the corner, set her bags down, peel off her sweatshirt, tie it around her waist, and pick up her bags to move on. I feel as alone as I did just before I met Marie, in line for that audition so long ago. I had forgotten how confusing the feeling is.
The house is out of balance without Paula, as if a lamp had been removed for repair and we only remember when we reach to turn it on. Standing in the yard, I dial the doctor. He tells me he cannot risk his license. He scolds me for attempting this fiasco in the first place. He forgets he sat next to Marie and we planned it together at her table, long before the arrival of a mechanical bed and bottles of colorful medicines. As he explains the exact steps to administering the overdose of barbiturates, and what I can expect, I stare at a mocking bird flashing the white stripes of its tail. I am uncannily relaxed and know I will remember every word.
The day is long and miserable. Though it shames me to think this, Marie reminds me of nothing other than an earthworm writhing in the sun on the sidewalk, unable to reach cool ground and tunnel to safety. When I take her hand, she pulls away. When I speak, she groans. Through a straw, she drinks some of the barbiturate and calms down so quickly I think perhaps I have killed her. The surviving showgirl headdress gapes in the wardrobe like a single tooth in a gummy mouth. I pull a mint-colored feather from it to lay on my friend’s chest. Its quivering reveals she is breathing. She wakes for one moment, spooking me from a doze, and says lucidly, “Soon there will be no elegance left.”
Frankie lets herself in as dusk settles. Though worn out–a plane was grounded due to a bird strike and she had to reroute 74 passengers–she sits down without changing clothes and orders me to go home. I leave without a word, dragging myself to my apartment where I lay on the carpet to heave tearless sobs. My heart hurts so much I hope I am having a coronary and will die before my friend.
Today is Saturday. The neighborhood children sleep in and so do I. When I wake up, I check my phone. No messages. I make coffee, shower, even blow dry my hair. I put on my face, concealer to mascara, and clean clothes. With the hot water left in the kettle, I soak a bowl of instant oatmeal and wait until the dried apples soften before I eat it. I wash the dishes and, when I reach for a dishrag to dry them, realize I am stalling. Anxiety sloshes over me; I rush next door.
Frankie dozes in what she’s coined “the vigil chair.” The blue-green feather rests in her hand. Standing in the doorway, light coming in from behind me, the cheerful sounds of families heading to the park, dogs barking farewell and hello, I cannot move. With another step, I know, everything will be different. Frankie opens her eyes. “Mom,” she says sounding like a girl.
“Baby, I’m here.”
“Where have you been?” We are whispering.
“At my place. You didn’t call.”
Frankie takes in her uniform skirt and sleeves, the feather in her hand. “She told me, Mom, that when my dad looked at you it was like he was looking at the sun.”
“That’s silly,” I say, stepping in.
“She said he could make anybody laugh.”
“Yeah?” The lilt of my daughter’s voice checks my own world-weary tone. I ask brightly, “What else did she say?”
“That you weren’t the prettiest, or the best dancer but you were the most joyful.” Her face asks if this is true.
“I loved being a showgirl. And I was over the moon when I had you.” She waits. “You’re wondering if I loved your dad.”
“Aunt Marie says you did.”
“Then, honey-angel-butter-pie, you know it’s true.” The pitiless lines of early middle-age slip from Frankie’s face and the corners of her mouth lift in a gentle grin. If I hadn’t been so off kilter I would have let her enjoy another moment of relief. Instead, when I reach Marie’s side, I say, “Oh my god, she’s gone.”
Frankie’s eyes widen. “I was right here?”
Several responses run through my head. “She always felt peaceful with you, Frankie,” I choose. “This is for the best.”
The crease between my daughter’s brows returns. She tucks the feather in her blazer pocket and runs a hand through her hair. “I’ll call Sugar.” She stands. “Let’s go ahead with the plan, today.”
“I think so, too.”
It’s a relief to hear Sugar’s van pull up 15 minutes later. Frankie and I assemble what we need and meet Sugar in the driveway with a box for her to load. When I carry out the last headdress, Frankie looks at me for a long moment. Sugar takes the feathery concoction and places it on a pillow in the backseat like a pet.
On one side, lattice screens Marie’s carport from the neighbor’s window, on the other side the house angles out to block a view from the street. Shrouded in the sheet, Marie weighs so little. Sugar carries her in her arms like a firefighter rescuing someone from a burning building. Sugar lays her in the back of the van on a pile of blankets from the house.
“Jesus, it’s like we’re kidnapping her,” Sugar says as she closes the barn-like van doors.
“We are,” Frankie says. Then, “Mom’s speechless. That’s bad.”
“I’m okay,” I say. “You look nice,” I tell Sugar. She has styled her spiky hair with gel and wears a clean t-shirt with an argyle knit vest over it.
“Marie told me to try a little harder.”
“Everyone got some Marie words of wisdom but me, I guess.” The younger women look at each other. I’ve let them down–a parent inevitably will. “That was petty.”
“Let’s just go,” Frankie says.
Sugar drives cautiously. Our cargo is fragile. Not the body, which stiffens and cools with each minute passing, but Marie’s soul whose presence is palpable. I have known this before with other deaths–my grandmother Dot, my brother Hal, two dogs–not every one. I felt it once in a stranger’s presence at a bus depot. It’s like rings made on a pond’s surface after a pebble drops in. The rings widen and widen until they melt away. That’s how a soul feels for minutes, hours or days after a body’s heart ceases: as if crossing to wherever it goes it echoes for awhile. The feeling makes you want to talk softly, move gently.
We’ve traveled only a block when Frankie breaks the silence, saying, “That’s Barry!” She points to a red truck passing us in the other direction.
“He’s on his way to Marie’s,” Sugar says.
I stay quiet in the backseat, split between the dead body behind me and the live ones in front.
“Mom?” Frankie says.
“Turn around,” I tell Sugar. “Let’s get him.”
When Sugar’s eyes meet mine in the rear view mirror I smile half-heartedly. Sugar pulls to the curb as Barry steps down from his truck in Marie’s driveway.
“I’m here to take Marie,” he is striding toward the house, not looking at me. The girls lean against the side of the van. “I’ll take care of her.” I follow him at an easy pace knowing he’ll be stopped by the locked door. “Open it,” he says half-turning to me. Then loudly, “Marie! I’m here.” Next he’ll start pounding the wood.
“She’s not here, Barry,” I say gently. I take his hand from the doorknob. He looks at the place where I touched him but does not resist. His eyes stay lowered. “She passed away. She’s gone, Barry.”
“Oh,” he blinks. “I didn’t want to believe it.” He casts his eyes to his boot tips. “Last night I dreamed she died.”
I nod. “It was peaceful. She died on her own.”
“I’m too late. I wanted to take care of her.”
I glance back at Frankie and Sugar, watching me protectively. “Barry, come with us.”
“Marie, well, you know Marie, she wanted an unusual kind of burial.”
He removes his hat and scratches his head. “She told me. I thought, I hoped, she was pulling my leg.”
“How many laws you plan to break this year?” His face carries a sad smile.
“Hey, she died on her own, like I said. Natural causes.”
“You might want to get rid of your pharmacy,” he cocks his head to the house.
“You’re right. Later. We sort of need to get going.”
Barry replaces his hat and I prepare to shake hands proper goodbye. But he surprises me. “I’ll come.” He stands up straight. “If I can say a prayer for her.”
My lips purse to release the air I’ve been holding. “You know Marie was an atheist.”
He squints like there’s smoke in his eyes. “I know.”
“Listen, you can pray for her but you cannot tell anyone what we are doing.” He nods. “And you cannot baptize her into the church.” He knows I am on to him. “Not even secretly. No proxies. She will come back and haunt me.”
He holds up a hand palm forward. “Got it.” I don’t trust him. Rumors have it the Mormon Church baptized Anne Frank vicariously, and a lot of other people, too. I walk to the van and he follows.
“Leave your truck here,” I motion for him to join me in the back seat. The four of us, five if if you count Marie, drive out Boulder Highway, take the turnoff to Searchlight–our final destination I cannot specify except to say it’s isolated.
So much has happened and it’s not even noon. We’re fortunate clouds blunt the sun and its heat. Sugar scoped out this place and sketched it for Marie. Tucked between low sandy hills spotted with rabbit brush it’s perfect. Sugar parks. In deep shade Frankie finds an Indian paintbrush flower waving crimson: a surprise so late in summer.
“There’s water nearby,” Barry sniffs the air like a bird dog.
“Make yourself useful,” Sugar says as she unloads boards from the roof rack. Frankie sits cross-legged inside the van beside Marie, plucking the feather headdress and snipping off strings of crystals, gold braid and beads with a Swiss Army knife.
Sugar and Barry settle into the rhythm of people who find companionship in making things. By the time Frankie has her pile of baubles collected on a scarf, the scaffold has been hammered into place. Made from redwood fencing from the hardware store, it is a miniature stage, eight-feet off the ground.
Sugar joins me as I reach through the van door to the dashboard cd player and scan for Sinatra’s song, “That’s Life.”
“Aren’t we supposed to wash the body?” she asks in a low voice.
“Some people do, I think, Jews and Muslims. It won’t matter to Marie.”
Sugar nods. “We’re ready.”
“That was fast.” She shrugs.
Frankie comes over. Barry is checking the joints of the structure. “He looks like a building inspector,” she says. He piles rocks around the buckets of concrete anchoring the four posts.
“He needs something to do.” I pause the cd at the right track. “Barry, you ready?”
Sugar reaches into the van for Marie then notices Barry beside her. “You go ahead,” she says.
He lifts the body as gently as he would a baby. “She’s light as a feather,” he murmurs.
At the scaffold, Frankie and Sugar steady the ladder. I climb up first, glad to be wearing sneakers. Positioned at the top, perched on a make-shift joist, I can see beyond the hills to the black highway snaking in the distance. There are no houses around. A few horses potter in a faraway corral, small as motes to a giant’s eye. My affection for the desert assuages me like a warm sea. Barry climbs with Marie cradled in one arm. I am grateful he does not throw her over his shoulder like a bag of flour or a wounded soldier. At the top he coughs, wavers, seeks balance. Even in that unsteady moment I am not worried. The wind holds its breath for us. He sets the body on the bare planks. Frankie reaches up with the bundle of jewels and feathers.
“You may not want to see this part,” I say as we face each other over the shrouded form. “I need to uncover her.”
Unwrapping the sheet is easier with two. We pass the cloth down to Frankie who runs it back to the van. She starts the cd player and Sinatra’s silky voice glides toward us. From the bundle of dismantled headdress, I tuck feathers between Marie’s fingers, arms and breast and belly, between her legs and toes. Barry lays crystals and beads on her forehead and in a line down her torso and legs. We place loops of braid in her hair.
“She looks wild,” I say, stunned at what we have done.
“She does.” Barry bows his head. Marie is a a battered rust-pocked chassis adorned with bits of baubles. Her lips have fallen away revealing teeth and their bridges and crowns. One hand remains clenched. Her hair sticks to her skull like wet leaves on stone in the breezeless air. Barry pulls a piece of paper from his pocket and breathes his prayer:
“And many days, when all one’s work is in vain,
And life goes stretching on, a waste gray plain,
With even the short mirage of morning gone,
No cool breath anywhere, no shadow nigh
Where a weary man might lay him down and die,”
“Is that a prayer?” He ignores me.
“What’s going on?” I hear Sugar ask Frankie. Barry clears his throat and continues:
“Lo! thou art there before me suddenly,
With shade as if a summer cloud did pass,
And spray of fountains whispering to the grass
O, save me from the haste and noise and heat
That spoil life’s music sweet:
And from that lesser Aphrodite there–
Even now she stands
Close as I turn, and O my soul, how fair!”
He pauses for a long moment. “Amen.”
“Amen,” I respond automatically. The wind stirs.
“Are you praying?” Frankie asks, incredulous.
“Not really,” I call down. “Barry read a poem. For Venus.”
“Well,” Frankie says, “I guess that’s okay.”
“Yeah, that’s okay,” Sugar confirms.
Barry extends his hand over Marie’s laid-bare mortal remains. I clasp it with both of my own. Those years of performing, I looked over and beyond the heads of people who gazed upon us as if we were mysterious objects. Even now, I am scanning the ridge.
Telling me to take my time, Barry descends the ladder first. The music has stopped. Perched on a rib-cage of boards above desert sand, with my dearest friend, I remember the day we played hooky from rehearsals and borrowed another girl’s car to drive out to Lake Mead. We were 19 years-old. Her swim suit was polka-dotted green, mine embroidered with daisies. We charmed two boys near our age who taught us to float on our backs then guided us by our feet along the water’s surface. Now Marie floats on air. “Goodbye, friend.” Turning away from her ravaged body, I find the ladder rung. I feel Frankie reaching to steady me. Barry lifts me the last foot down as if I am dismounting from a carriage.
“Well,” Sugar says and picks up her tool bag. Frankie follows her to the van. I lean into Barry. We leave Marie, as she wanted be, naked to sun, wind, carrion birds.
We straggle into the van; Frankie insists Barry sit up front. We are grim as riders in an airport shuttle.
“I could have made a rainbow,” Barry says, gripping the dashboard as we bump over the dirt road. “With an irrigator and a water tank.” We women stay silent. “There’s a lot I should have done.”
Warm air funnels through the wing windows of the van, hitting my face so hard my eyes water. Near Railroad Pass, we hear a train.
“Marie told me,” I say to my fellow passengers, “that the one redeeming quality of Peteley, her hometown, was the train. That a train’s whistle is a reminder that there is always some place to go.”
“You know what?” Frankie says, “I’m actually hungry.”
“Sahara burger?” Sugar suggests. “It’s right up here along the highway.”
After another quick mile, Sugar pulls into the drive-through lane and reads the menu aloud.
“Family meal will be the best deal,” Frankie says.
Sugar places the order and we wait sealed up, the air conditioner running cool air across our tired skins. The burger stand’s little window slides open.
“Let me get this,” Barry hands Sugar a twenty dollar bill. She takes it, rolls down the driver’s window and pays.
“Keep it!” Barry calls across to the burger girl when she counts out the change.
I see that the burger girl is extraordinarily beautiful in spite of the khaki polo shirt and plastic pith helmet she is required to wear: hair black as a ravens’ feathers, skin milky as summer moon, and eyes the color of a robin’s egg beneath arched brows.
“Thanks,” her voice is glib. “Here’s your order. ” Sugar passes the bag to Barry who sneaks a French fry. She maneuvers the van under the thin shade of a mesquite tree then distributes our paper-wrapped sandwiches and cardboard sleeves of salty fried potatoes. We eat together, taking our time. Around us, a succession of cars slides in and out of rows of parking stalls framed in lines.
Alexa Mergen lives on a boat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. She grew up in Washington, D.C. and has also lived in cities and small towns in California, Michigan, Nevada and West Virginia. Her stories have been published in District Lines, Roar, Wilderness House and other journals, performed by Stories on Stage in Sacramento and in Davis, California and honored for “best prose” by the story South Million Writers Luminaire Award.