Love Among the Fever Bags

In Issue 60 by Michael Fontana

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Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Mom lay on a cloud, wings spread, eating a piece of coconut cream pie with her bare hands. She was clad in a thin white robe, head adorned not with a halo but a tall, platinum blonde wig, her spectral body puny as a twig.

“How’s the weather up there, Ma?”

“Sweet as this pie,” she said, smiling, a dollop of whipped topping on her chin.

“I miss you,” I said. I was forty-four, tall and lean but soft in the middle, pale and balding, living alone in a two-bedroom house where I once cared for her until I could do so no longer.

“I miss you, too, but glad to be out of that fever bag.”

“What do you mean?”

“Listen, Sonny, it’s a misery to get old and tied down to a nursing home bed, fed through a tube cut in your belly, nothing to drink, nothing to eat, someone interrupting sleep every hour to palpate your wrists and take your blood and wipe a thermometer over your head and then inspect your every bowel movement and pee. It’s not the golden honey of light that pours over me now, let me tell you.”

“Are you telling the truth?”

“As true as this pie’s about done for.” She shoved the rest in, and it traced an illuminated yellow path from her maw to her midriff.

“I love you, Ma.”

“I love you too. Now finish your years on Earth and come sit on a cloud with me.”

With that, the light vanished.

*

Sometimes at night I drove since I couldn’t sleep. At the all-night big-box store they knew my face well enough to say hello. I walked the aisles in search of my one or two small items, the lights inside leaving no trace of shadow. The workers wore kneepads as they unpacked plats of cans and boxes. They pointed their pricing guns at bar codes on the box, at bar codes on the shelf, and somewhere in cyberspace the two connected for posterity.

The store had everything. I had the means to buy much more than Mom ever did. So I bought something, anything, an omelet pan for instance, or a row of photo frames. Nothing I needed but something extra just to say that I could.

“Can I help you, dude?” It was the voice of a man about eighteen, pimply and stubbly faced, scrawny as a lark, in a blue vest with a price gun holstered to his belt.

“No, thanks,” I said.

“You look lost.”

“I am. But it has nothing to do with this place.”

“Whatever.” He scooted his way to a new mountain of merchandise.

I bought coffee and toaster strudel and went on my way to the checkout line. Most of the registers were now self-serve, but I avoided those. I wanted interaction. So I rang the bell and soon enough a woman near my age emerged from behind a wall of grocery carts heaped with returned merchandise.

“Sorry, I didn’t hear you at first,” she said, pushing brown bangs from her eyes, tightening a jacket around her shoulders as if cold, stroking the register keys with a soft click of fingernails.

“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m in no rush.”

“It’s awful late for someone to be out. We hardly get anyone in here at this hour.”

“I think of it as early for the new day dawning. I want to get a fresh start.”

“No new starts here,” she snorted. “It’s always the same day as ever.”

She handed me my receipt and bags, and I went off into a night that hung with a sickle moon and slivers of starlight. My car was too small for me, a compact when I stood six foot two, but it was practical, got good gas mileage, squeezed into tiny parking spots, and maneuvered with great dexterity when changing lanes.

Mom appeared in the passenger seat next to me, her light flickering. She took time to fasten her seat belt.

“What are you doing?” She spoke with small yawns escaping here and there, tensing and relaxing her spindly angel limbs.

“Just buying a few things.”

She perked up. “Anything good?”

I told her.

“That’s boring,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, just buy better stuff.”

“I honestly don’t have the interest anymore,” I said.

“You’re just confused right now. It will get better.”

“Will it?”

She fidgeted with the radio until she reached one that played nothing but static. “It will. I promise. Your time is coming soon.” She patted my hand as it rested on the gearshift knob. “I’m everywhere now. I can protect you.”

“Ma, I’m forty-four years old. I can protect myself.”

“You haven’t proven it so far.”

“I do the best I can.” The static resumed, overriding silence for a spell as we both took in the moon and stars, the endless curve of the universe. “I love you, Ma,” I finally said.

“I love you too, Sonny.” She patted my hand again and then left it resting there as we drove, until eventually she disappeared, as slowly as a snowflake melting.

*

The funeral home smelled vaguely of poop. Inside, a tall silver-haired man in a black suit greeted me behind a counter. He handed me several forms to sign, for the death certificates, for release of the cremains, for everything necessary in the wake of Mom’s passing. Then came the urn. It was a slight affair, white marble with her name, birth and death dates etched into the top. Despite its size, its weight was tremendous. With the quick discretion of his work, the man slid it into a fabric pouch and then hefted it out to my car while I walked beside him.

Mom’s vestigial body on the backseat floor of my car seemed heavy enough to make it pop a wheelie. But it didn’t. I drove instead, into lines of traffic, people weaving in and out of lanes, a farm truck hauling a spreader, several impatient students exiting the community college, a din of pickup trucks with broken mufflers. It all became white noise to the ever-increasing presence of Mom’s remains in the car with me.

My eyes grew moist. I squeezed them tightly shut for as many seconds as I could and still maintain my attention on the road. I hadn’t cried since her death. Even as she went comatose, I sat at her bedside in the nursing home. No tears arrived there but a sense of relief that she was exiting a body that had failed her, hooked to the feeding tube that the hospice nurse had finally agreed to stop, bedsores afflicting her limbs despite efforts the home made to turn her at regular intervals, sponge baths that left her eyes red and agonizingly open at the indignity.

I had stroked her hair. “I love you, Ma,” I whispered.

No words returned but an occasional gurgle from the dried mucous that collected in her throat and cheeks. Nothing by mouth, not even a drop of water. To fight the phlegm, the nurses arranged a small plastic cup full of olive oil and a swab. I dipped the swab in the oil and then opened Mom’s mouth, spreading the oil inside her cheeks, over her tongue and gums, on her lips.

When she passed, there was no particular alarm, just a call to me at three a.m. I arrived to find her still in place on the nursing home bed, eyes open but suddenly unseeing, mouth sealed in a frown. Similar to how I had last seen her the day before. I had no new gesture for the scene, just a sense that a stone had fallen deep inside me, tugging at my heart, settling deep into my bowels and belly like it would never leave again. So, I sat at her bedside as always, stroked her head and said, “I love you, Ma.”

Back in the car, I sped onto the highway with her cremains nestled in back. Then she appeared beside me again in the passenger seat, buckling her spirit into place.

“What are you doing with me?”

“Taking you home for now,” I said.

“That’s your home, not mine,” she said. “I never really had a home since I was a girl.”

“I feel the same way. Always like a guest.”

She scratched her wing. “Life on Earth will do that to you. It really is a transitory place. You ought to see the foyer in the afterlife. It’s like a subway station littered with all sorts of broken shapes, people still conforming to bodies that fit them on Earth when their spirits want to grow into something else.”

“What do you mean by ‘something else’?” I asked.

“A spirit can take on all kinds of shapes in the afterlife: dogs, snails, jewelry boxes, you name it. I can fit those forms and leave those forms at will. The only permanence is the light that spreads throughout my soul like butter on a slice of toast. Believe me, it’s the best.” She paused to point. “Isn’t this your exit?”

It was. I turned off and drove up to the house. Once there, I lifted the urn from the car. I carried it in with great effort and placed it on the fireplace hearth in the living room. Mom’s spirit settled on the mantel, eating a coconut shrimp, looking down at the urn. “I’ve never looked so small in all my life.”

“Your life is over,” I said, staring at the urn.

“You’re wrong,” she said. “It never ends. The difference is that after Earth, it improves. If I had known, I would have done things much differently.”

“Like what?”

“Stopped worrying and made it as easy as possible to get on with the real show.”

“I’m not sure how anyone can do that,” I said. “There are so many responsibilities. You had me, after all.”

“I would have made you worry less as well. Death especially is nothing to worry about. You lose your body. So what? You gain eternity. You gain pure spirit and pure light. What else could a person want?”

“A little glimpse of happiness here now and then?”

“I’ll leave you to find it,” she said, downing the last bite of shrimp, tail and all. “I’m off to a shindig up here. Better times, Sonny, better times ahead.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “I love you, Ma.”

“I love you too.” With that she disappeared.

*

For dinner I cooked tilapia, rice and broccoli. In my pocket lay two pouches the funeral home had supplied of Mom’s cremains. These were keepsakes beyond what lay inside the urn.

I rinsed the dishes in the sink, put the leftovers into sealed bowls, and wiped off the table. Then I sat at the table again, wiping my hands on my slacks, hunger gnawing at my abdomen despite the meal inside.

Mom sat in the chair across from me, leaning forward so her wings weren’t crushed by the seatback. “Snap out of it,” she said.

“I’m trying,” I said.

“You could put my urn in a place with more light.”

“I thought about putting it on the mantel, but it’s so heavy I’m afraid it will fall off and bust into pieces.”

“What’s really the matter, Sonny?”

“Part of me wants you back where I can still visit you on Sundays before church,” I said.

“Don’t put me back in that fever bag of a body.”

“Sometimes it seemed the easiest way to cope. I could hold your hand. I could place the olive oil in your mouth. I could brush your hair.”

“I’m sitting with my soul in front of you and you’re worried about the state of my hair?” she asked.

“I’m jealous of you right now,” I continued. “I want to be pure soul. I want to flit around and visit the people I love without worry. I want to see what you’re seeing.”

“It’s a far sight better than what you get to see, let me tell you that.”

I leaned in. “What’s it like?”

“The closest you’ll ever know comes in dreams and orgasms.”

“Too much information, Ma.”

Her hand lit on mine. “No, I’m serious. Think about it. In dreams come the confusion of order, everything chaotic and shifting. That’s part of it, where you witness all around you, but it’s also at a remove, where you can observe with calm, still feel your peace but recognize both pain and pleasure.”

I put my fingers in my ears. “Please don’t talk to me about orgasms.”

“That’s the closest you’ll get to where I am right now. A space where you lose all inhibition, all sense of confinement to the fever bag, just a swift pitch of pleasure into the void.”

An old question came to mind. “But you only slept with Dad, right?”

She gave me the raspberry and then bellowed a laugh. “He was a fine partner but we never married, remember? I was a lonely single mother. There were so many other men. I had to know how it was with them. Sometimes it was better, sometimes worse.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “You know, I can’t remember much of how you looked except during the past few years, when you were so weak and frail.”

A particular moment floated into my head: when Mom was last capable of living on her own, in a small apartment, I came ringing at the door. I heard her voice from inside, raspy and weak, so I keyed my way in. I found her in the shower, stark naked, lying flat on her back in the tub, unable to stand on her own. Squatting, I wrapped my arms around her, averting my eyes from her body, and hoisted her up to standing again. She apologized and wrapped herself in a towel. By the next weekend, she was living with me, never to be so independent again.

“You could have stopped caring for me,” she said as if intuiting my thoughts.

“No way. You’re my mom. I wanted to make it better.”

“But you couldn’t. I would have loved to have been forty years younger and still independent, still desirable.” She grew wistful. “You don’t know how hard it is missing out on those lovely orgasms.”

I winced at first but then replied. “Maybe I do.”

She pursed her lips. “If that’s the case, maybe you ought to have a fling.”

“I can’t. I’m not wired that way. I want more than just getting laid.”

“Then find it.”

*

Mom’s sister, Edna, lived in the countryside. A thin fog gathered at the bases of trees, especially at the bottoms of hills, and cut my vision down to a short patch in front of me. Her house was large and painted periwinkle blue. She stood on the porch with her red hair drawn up in a bun, her figure matronly in a gingham dress, hands clasped together as if in prayer instead of waiting for me. We greeted with a hug, and I handed her the two pouches of cremains.

“That’s it?” She held the pouches between two fingers as if pinching the tail of a rat.

“It’s what the funeral home deemed appropriate. The bulk’s in the urn for burial next week.”

“They wanted you to have most of it,” she said. “Typical.”

“Of what?”

“Of how selfish children can be. You could have had the whole of her intact and buried.”

“She died with no money and no will,” I said. “I did the best I could.”

“Tell that to our Lord when he rejects her from heaven because she didn’t return with all her original parts.”

“What?”

“It’s in the Bible,” she said. “God wants back what he gave her at birth.”

“I don’t know that particular scripture. I think God’s more worried about her soul.”

“Don’t you try to tell me what God wants. You go to that new age, atheist church. You equate God with a snowstorm outside, with a toucan in the tropics. God is everywhere and nowhere to you. That’s not even God anymore.”

“I really think we ought to focus on Mom,” I said.

“I am focused on your mom. She was my sister. I’m worried about her soul right now. I don’t want her burning in an eternal lake of fire just because her son was too cheap to pony up for a proper funeral and burial.” She looked again at the bags of cremains. “I’ll find a nice urn to put these in, don’t worry.”

I reached up to my mouth, suddenly feeling like I had a stray pubic hair on my tongue.

She continued. “I pray for you too, every day, that you’ll someday see the light and repent of your wickedness. Your life is the work of the devil, you know. He’s had you in his clutches for a long time.”

My tongue no longer responded to me. “Thank you,” I said and then tried every way of stuffing my fingers in my mouth to keep further words from emerging. But I couldn’t. It was my voice but Mom’s words. “And how long has your preacher had you in his clutches?”

“Pardon?”

“I mean, he’s already slept with half the congregation. Has your time come?”

Edna’s face turned crimson. Her fists balled. She closed her eyes. “Out, demon, out!” A long silence fell between us. Then her eyes opened again. The crimson abated back to red, then pink, then her normal pasty tone. “I must be off to bed.”

She stomped off and slammed the door behind her after she entered. I saw the front curtain open when I left, as if she made sure to watch my taillights completely disappear.

“She’s totally batty, you know,” Mom said, joining me again on the ride home.

“She’s your sister. You could have helped me in a more positive way back there.”

“I have your back for now. But soon you’ll have to learn how to act in this world, even with complete lunatics like her.”

“She says I’m the lunatic.”

“No,” Mom said. “You make an effort to improve yourself. People like her suffer too, but they never work on fixing it. So, they stay the same their whole lives, maintaining ideas and behaviors that may work when they’re younger, but as they age are increasingly annoying and unproductive.”

“You weren’t exactly the model for personal change, Ma.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Sonny. I used to be like her when I grew up. But once I encountered your father, meeee-ow. I let all that stale and judgmental crap fly right out the window. It all sounds good in theory, but the practice is connection, not alienation. The more connected I am with people, the less I can sit like a toad in judge’s robes and denounce them.”

I considered this. “I don’t know about connecting. I’m pretty much a loner.”

“So was I. But there are little ways to connect.”

I didn’t know what else to say so I said what I always did. “I love you, Ma.”

“I love you too. Now watch out for that tree.”

She projected her light onto the road where sure enough I was headed toward a good-sized oak. I corrected the wheel and made it all the way home without further incident.

*

I spent hours the next day putting together a cover letter for the death certificates. They went to the bank, the IRS, DHS, Social Security, Mom’s pension office and her life insurance. It struck me strange that they all wanted the information sent to generic addresses with no contact person or specific office indicated. The websites were empty of information about what to do with information once someone died, as if it was too dark a subject for the chirpy tidings of an organization’s virtual world. I put all this correspondence in the mailbox, plus I scribbled a check to the cemetery where she was to be interred.

Her ashes remained on the hearth and I kept my eye on them until I fell asleep on the sofa. In time I stirred myself awake, brushed my teeth, washed my face, put on my pajamas and headed off to bed. But in bed I lay awake. I heard the occasional thump of a truck driving by with its speakers turned full up, the songs of night-birds gathering in trees. I wanted to sleep and not wake up. That was all. People did it every day and it was no big deal, natural causes.

I fought the impulse. And when that didn’t work, I let it linger there, growing like a cobweb in and around the trees, the corners of the house, between the stars themselves, until it settled over my eyes and drove me to sleep.

*

At three a.m. the aisles at the big-box store stood empty as usual, associates kneeling, stretching, standing on tiptoe, all working to fill the shelves, clean the floors, and pull aside the waste. I found milk, oatmeal and orange juice and they were enough to weigh down my basket.

A young woman with a top row of silver teeth rang me up. “Where’s the other woman?” I asked, expecting the one more my age.

“Oh, she had a stroke,” the young woman said. “Can’t run a register anymore.”

“Send her my regards,” I said.

“She can’t hear me for regards. Blew out her eardrums too.”

I moved along with my purchases, out into a night etched with a steely chill.

Mom haunted me inside the car, resembling a cloud with a bouffant hairdo. “You really took a shine to that older cashier, didn’t you?”

“Oh boy.”

“Just try sleeping around, Sonny. It’s easier and less expensive than a wedding.”

“No, it’s not,” I said. “It’s emotionally painful or deadening after a while. You can’t just treat people like carcasses as if they have no feelings.”

“Lighten up,” she said. “Make love and enjoy it, relish it. You don’t have to surrender all your emotions to sustain an orgasm. I never did. And I had lots of orgasms in my day.”

“Too much information, Ma.”

“It’s good advice.”

“It’s terrible advice,” I said. “You were alone for the last forty years of your life. I don’t want that kind of existence.”

“You’re scared of being alone, like most people,” she said. “But you’re born alone and die alone. Until you reach the hereafter, your fever bag isolates you from any true connection.”

“I don’t live in the hereafter,” I said. “I live here.”

“You’re still such a child,” she said.

Her words stung me. I had hated being a child.

Mom sometimes came home from work at her day job and wept. She couldn’t explain it. I saw a primordial wound in her but could never reach it, let alone help her heal it. It was like she lived in a cage, and I could only pull at the bars but never set her free. So I contented myself with wrapping my arms around her as best I could, warm trickle of her tears on my cheek. I reached up from time to time to wipe them away with my tiny hand.

My thoughts were interrupted when blue lights went up behind me. I slowed to a roll on the side of the road, wheels crunching on rocks. The cruiser pulled up as well. The cop slowly emerged, brandishing a flashlight, maintaining distance between his body and the road, his body and my car, taking a strange angle to approach as if afraid I might open fire from inside.

I rolled down my window and he filled my face with flashlight beam. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“No idea,” I said.

“You were swerving on the road back there.”

“I don’t recall doing that.”

“License and registration, please.”

I reached slowly for my wallet and pulled out the license, reached slowly for the glove compartment and pulled out my registration. Both of these I handed to him.

My fingers drummed the steering wheel as I waited. He returned with both items in hand. “Since your record is clean, I’m going to let you off with a warning this time.”

“Thank you,” I said, putting things back in their place.

“Were you singing along to a song back there? You looked so animated.”

“I was talking to my mom.”

He looked inside the car, swathing it with his beam. “The car is empty, sir.”

“She’s dead,” I said without a trace of wavering.

“Talking to a dead woman while driving. We may have to make that an offense.”

“Great source of revenue for the city, I’m sure.”

“Get on home,” he said and walked off, his feet crushing the gravel behind me.

*

Later in the day, Sheila, my minister, arrived. She was a thin and pale figure, with white hair. Her scarves, skirt and blouse were all woven in shades of purple. She carried a thick green blanket pierced by a yellow rose. These latter she gave to me. “The blanket’s handmade, the congregation’s way of comforting you in your loss.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m touched. It’s unexpected.”

“Sometimes a slight surprise helps alleviate the grief.”

“And the rose?”

“Something from my garden,” she said. “Just because.”

She smiled her way into the house. I took Mom’s urn out of its satchel and Sheila marveled at the pretty pale marble.

“Tell me about your mother,” Sheila said as she sat on the floor, legs tucked beneath her, smoothing her skirt.

I waited for Mom to appear. I searched the ceiling fan, the chimney, the kitchen and the front door. No sign of her. “I keep feeling like I know her better dead than I did alive.”

“Talk more about that,” Sheila said.

“I mean, I miss her presence here, but I have this sense of great relief for her. Like ridding herself of flesh has freed her spirit to climb.”

“That happens sometimes, especially when the body is ill or injured in some way. The soul shares a sense of liberation with the survivors.”

“I still miss her, even though sometimes she’s right with me,” I said.

“I’m sure it feels that way,” Sheila said.

“It is that way. She’s right with me.”

“Like an angel then.”

I thought about it. “Yes, perhaps like an angel.”

“Then she is right with us, watching down on us, enjoying our discussion about her. And think of what all else she is learning on the other side. Amazing things, things we can’t even imagine. Maybe we should pray.”

I lost her after she said the first words, “Divine Spirit.” She took great pains to locate words, I could tell, tossing them like feathers in the air. I kept my head down as if concentrating, but my eyes remained open, looking at the urn, wishing Mom would show up. But she didn’t.

*

The next morning I readied myself for church. It was held in a storefront, chairs assembled in a half circle, hymnals on each seat along with bulletins. In the center sat a table that served as an altar. This day it contained more yellow roses like the one Sheila brought me. Many people came up to me to offer hugs and condolences. These I accepted with an inability to look them in the eye.

The service began with a song, then a reading, then a guided meditation that took way too long. Suddenly I had to pee. I waited longer than seemed possible, through the message and another song and then into the offering. I stood up when the ushers pushed along their baskets. Then I headed to the far end of the sanctuary. It grew quiet there except for an approach of footsteps. A male congregant about my age followed me. He put his hands on my shoulders to stop me. “Come here, you,” he said.

He turned me around and squeezed me in the deepest hug imaginable, so hard I thought I might wet my pants with the pressure. “I feel your loss, brother,” he said, his voice gravelly.

“I have to pee,” I whispered.

“Sure you do.” He winked. “Nobody can see you cry, right?”

“Sure,” I said. He finally released me and I darted into the bathroom, locking the door against any further intimacies with him.

After the service, I drove home and sorted through old photos of Mom. A recent one had us standing on a bridge in a nearby park, foliage full and brown around us, while we laughed at some forgotten joke. Mom clutched my arm. She was almost a foot shorter than me, with her normally dyed blonde hair reverting to its brunette roots, her body frail enough to teeter and sometimes topple when she stood or walked. We seldom smiled in photographs so it was a keeper.

Another was much older, her in preparation for her night job waitressing at the cocktail lounge, her dyed blonde hair hidden by a hat, her dress black, a string of pumpkins around her neck, and layers of make-up on her face. I swore I could smell the hairspray she must have recently applied. Again, a smile. She loved nights when she could dress up for the bar. She loved the bar itself, the noise, the people, the music, even the atmosphere thick with cigarette smoke and the scent of stale beer. It all meant fun and escaping responsibility for a while.

Whenever the jukebox played “O Darling” by the Beatles, she could count on a man asking her to dance. It was one of the only rock tunes on the machine. Otherwise it was rife with country weepers, George Jones bemoaning the loss of his eternal love or his latest state of intoxication. It was the one setting where she knew how to connect with people, where the connections weren’t very serious, where people hid from themselves and the world and it was alright.

I set each picture alongside Mom’s urn on the hearth. In most she frowned or simply stared back blankly, caught in the act of petting a cat, opening a package, even mopping the floor at one point.

Soon, Mom arrived in a sparkly green top hat and shamrocks on her shirt. “I missed St. Patty’s day on Earth. We’re making up for lost time.”

“I see,” I said. Then I changed the subject. “How come you didn’t smile for pictures?”

“I hated having my picture taken. You know how primitives believe that a camera captures your soul and not just your image? It was kind of like that. I hated being reminded that I was too fat or too thin, that I was aging, that I had wrinkles. I had this perfect picture of myself inside my head, forever twenty-one years old, balanced in figure, young in the face, ready to conquer the world. Every photograph ruined that picture for me.”

“You were lovely all along, Ma.”

“That’s easy to say but harder to live with, especially for women, where beauty’s supposedly the marker. I see differently now. No body means no worries about all those things. They’re part of the dust now. I wish I could have seen that way twenty years ago.”

“It’s hard when you’re here,” I said.

“You still can see things that way. It’s not too late.”

“It’s difficult. My hair is receding, my face wrinkling, my body aching more and more.”

“It’s just evolution,” she said. “You’re shedding your skin. Be happy. Soon you won’t be tied to it any more. Then comes liberation.”

“Tell that to your friends in the nursing home. Tell them how happy they should be that they’ve lost all ability to care for themselves.”

“The body isn’t everything. I’m more worried about the spirit now. If that’s healthy, the body can fly away.” She cupped an ethereal hand to her ear. “They’re calling me. I’d best get back.”

“I love you, Ma.”

“I love you too, Sonny.” With that, she disappeared.

*

In the pre-dawn hours I awoke and drove to the store. I ambled along the aisles, not in search of any particular product but awaiting surprises. This was not my routine. I usually brought a list with me, written on paper in pen, even if the list held only one item.

I looked at a bakery rack. In daylight hours it held loaves of bread, cakes, pies, donuts, muffins, all reduced because they were old and already replaced with fresher merchandise. I went to the fresh bakery aisle and those racks were empty too, the baking now taking place somewhere else.

Glancing down the detergent aisle, I saw the most beautiful young woman: jet black hair, olive skin, toned physique, polo shirt and khaki slacks, head erect. I smiled at her and she smiled back. “Can I help you, sir?”

“No. You already have, thank you.”

Walking away, I distracted myself by picking through jars of peanut butter. The jar I settled on weighed heavy in my hand. I moved toward the register where I was greeted by a teenaged boy, faced riddled with acne, hair a brownish mop on his head, long jawline and nose.

He laughed at my purchase. “We got a whole liquor section over there, mister.”

“I don’t drink.”

He grew serious. “Man, if I was your age, I’d be in there nonstop. Think of all the combinations you could have!”

“Booze makes me physically ill.”

“It don’t me. Next time I lift a glass, I’ll do it in your honor, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, nodding back at him.

I sat in my car with the engine running and stared at the sky. It was clear except for stars and a few wispy clouds in motion. The heater blew its lukewarm air on me. Mom soon sat on my dashboard like a taxicab Madonna.

For once I spoke before she did. “I’m confused.”

“Of course you are. About what?”

“Why you looked so haggard.”

“I worked three jobs, one of them in a cloud of smoke. I raised you alone. I dated all kinds of men, most who were only after sex, which was fine at times and other times a disappointment. The body tires.”

“I’m sorry you had it rough for so long.”

“Don’t be. I’m in a place where I feel authentic for the first time.” She leaned forward. “Listen: If society tells you it’s authentic, it’s not. Society wants you to conform. Conformity means more money and more control for other people. Ignore it. Move in your own direction.”

“I don’t know what that looks like.”

“Then figure it out.” She waved her hand like it held a baton. Then she became one of the clouds over my head, thin and transparent across the moon.

*

Mom often taught me mercy. When a kid I knew from high school was kicked out of his house, I asked Mom if we could keep him, like he was a puppy. She said he could stay with us for a night, a risk for a single mom with a boy of her own. But from the simple kindness of offering a bare box spring in our basement, the kid drew himself up. Someone else cared even if his parents stopped for a time. He pushed through. He moved on.

On the morning of her service, I spent some time on the floor in the living room, gazing at her urn on the hearth. She didn’t speak or appear. Just the marble lay there like an actual marker on a grave, waiting for the grasses to take over. A spider soon descended from mantel to hearth, settling next to the urn before disappearing into the small splits of wood that lay next to the fireplace.

For the service I dressed in a brown suit, the color of earth, with a red tie, the color of blood. I hefted the urn into my car and drove off for the countryside. The day lay crisp and clear before me, trees just beginning to bud along sides of roads so they dappled white. It took an hour or so before I reached Edna’s town, and then I drove beyond it, farther into the hills until I reached a nearly unmarked road where the cemetery rested.

The small plot for Mom already lay waiting, open to the elements. While waiting, I milled amongst the headstones until I found the ones that denoted my grandparents, whom I barely remembered from youth. Another aunt rested nearby beneath a simple white marker. Soon rolled up a few vehicles, one of them containing Edna, others containing cousins and more distant relatives I barely knew existed.

A cemetery worker took the urn from me and readied it for interment. Sheila arrived and stood next to one of the cousins, the two chattering like birds. A portly man stood next to Edna, clearly her minister. He had cropped orange hair, gray pinstripe suit, white shirt, gray tie and suspenders. He snapped the latter once or twice as if for emphasis. A male cousin came up to shake my hand and offer his condolences. He wore a black suit, white belt, and Bugs Bunny tie with the caption on it: “That’s all folks!” Wind crabbed the remaining leaves at our feet.

Edna approached me, in a black dress, a half veil clinging to the hat on her head. “Why is the urn white?” She whispered with a fleck of irritation to her voice.

“It reminded me of coconut,” I said. “Mom loved coconut.”

“I don’t care. It should be black or at least gray for a funeral.”

“It will be six feet underground. No one will notice.”

“It will haunt me for all my days,” she said.

The service began. Sheila recited a psalm and then spoke her own words. “Who knows what great journey she is on, what things she is now seeing and learning? This isn’t the end but a bold beginning. Angels are gathered around her now, leading her to new heights. She is transformed, now transforming us. And so it is. Amen.”

Edna’s minister stepped up next. “That’s all well and good. But it’s not biblical. We all knew she was Bible-believing, God-fearing woman of faith. She may be among the angels in heaven, true, but her faith kept her out of the eternal lake of fire.”

I closed my eyes and put a hand to my head. Sheila simply listened with a polite smile.

Edna’s minister continued. “Each of us needs to repent, now. Follow this beautiful woman’s example and cast aside our sinning. How many of you have sinned even today? How many right now, in your heart? As a testament to this beautiful woman’s life, step up now and give me a hallelujah.”

I smirked. Mom didn’t attend a minute of church the entire time I lived with her. She owned a Bible, true, but mostly placed important dates inside it, births and marriages and deaths. She didn’t study or read it. She may have prayed in her way but did it silently, out of view of spectators, for her own good rather than to chastise others. I didn’t know the extent of her faith but couldn’t imagine it containing hopes of other people burning in hell.

The minister ambled off to the side. The crowd waited for some kind of closure. A finch settled at my feet. “Get up there,” Mom said from the bird’s beak.

“What?”

“Get up there. I want you to finish this.”

“I’m no preacher,” I whispered. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Just speak from the heart,” she said.

So I took a deep breath, walked over to where the ministers had stood and raised my hands. “One more thing,” I said.

The crowd waited. I wanted to say more but lacked words. The finch lit on my shoulder. “I’ll walk you through it,” Mom said into my ear.

I took another breath and then began: “God wants you to be happy. God loves you. This life isn’t meant as punishment. It’s meant to get you from body to spirit. Sometimes it aches along the way but it’s all to build and strengthen you. God is at your back, by your side, taking your hand and guiding you along the right paths. They may not seem right at the time because they’re difficult. But difficulty helps build you up, strengthens you, challenges you and makes you grow.

“God loves you. Don’t ever forget that. God created you and made you different from anyone else. God forgives you when you screw up and admit it. God sits with you in your darkest hour and sheds the faintest light around you like a candle. God wants you to love the people around you too. Go on, say it to each other. Say ‘I love you.’”

The crowd muttered and looked at one another.

“Do it, Mom says!”

So they did it, quietly at first but then with much more pleasure. Soon people laughed, milled around the plot and greeted one another. Sheila gave me a hug, as did Edna. The finch first lifted off into a nearby tree, and then the sky, before it disappeared for good.

About the Author

Michael Fontana

Michael Fontana is a retired activist, teacher and fundraiser who lives in beautiful Bella Vista, Arkansas. Recent publications include fresh.ink and Hare's Paw Literary Journal.