Erika D. Price is a social psychologist, writer, and eternal student living in
Chicago, Illinois. She writes all her first drafts on the Notepad...read more app of her
iPhone, which sounds insane but is actually quite a convenient way to bang out
ideas on the go while simultaneously looking like a vapid, perpetually-texting
woman-child. In her spare time she eats marshmallows and wanders around Chicago’s
HE'D DIED UNDER THE KNIFE. That much was apparent to Charice right away. Poor thing, someone said, so young, it chills the bones. Indeed, she said. It makes you feel as if there’s no hope left. It blackens the blood, it really does.
She had to listen awhile, circling the crowd, before the whole tale was revealed to her. Some guests were loath to discuss what had happened at all. The boy’s immediate family was particularly mum. Instead, Charice had to duck behind gaggles of tittering old women and clusters of wary-looking young people, distant relatives, and mere acquaintances of the deceased. She stood close, held firm, looked down and away until she seemed to disappear. They forgot her presence and talked about the boy, what he’d done, why this happened. Their references were glancing, vague, but after a few laps through the mass of mourners she’d picked most of it up.
It was an elective procedure. How sad, how frivolous, was the general opinion. He hadn’t needed it, a few young girls sighed. He didn’t understand the risks, an old man speculated; The doctor had been a lout. Trust fund money from his grandparents had footed the bill, the disgrace! Surely they were lurching in their own graves a few yards away. What irony, some stout middle-aged woman said to her oblivious daughter. Trying to be pretty, this is what it got him. Not so pretty now I’ll bet.
Pectoral surgery, Charice finally learned, as a cousin recounted the event to his date in a hushed voice. Implants. Or one implant, rather. Was he some kinda transexual? The girlfriend asked, missing the point. No, the cousin said. No he was a proper man. Just lopsided in the muscles, that was his only problem. Wasn’t a thing queer about him otherwise I don’t think. And then the cousin turned his head and stared at Charice a bit, and she had to walk away pretending she was very interested in her hangnails.
She settled beside a fat couple. The woman had pink skin and thick, dangly earrings, and sipped from an Arizona Iced Tea bottle while whispering to her husband and staring into open clay of the grave. The husband dug his hands and soft, fleshy arms deep into his pockets, stabilizing himself. Some kinda infection, the fat woman said. From his hospital stay. Mersa? Morsa? The husband said, M-R-S-A. He pronounced the letters individually, downward into the dirt. She said, what’s it stand for? I don’t know, he replied, shaking his jowls. Staph. The S is for staph. Hard to believe a strapping feller like that checked into the hospital and came out weaker and sicker than when he went in. Or didn’t come out at all, I guess.
Hospitals are crawling with infectious diseases, Charice said to them. It’s not a good place to go if you have any health to lose. She was craning up on her heels so she could see the floor of the grave. The couple stopped speaking after that, so she ambled away.
The ceremony began about twenty-five minutes after Charice had arrived. It was short and terse, as such things typically were. Dirt was flung and a bulldozer was dispatched; A mousy girl in a brown dress pitched herself to her knees. She was standing with the people Charice had pegged as immediate family, but she didn’t have their high cheeks, broad shoulders, or their fluffy blonde hair, so Charice speculated she’d been the boy’s girlfriend. Watching her loud anguish set against the quiet, contained despair of the boy’s mother was nearly more than Charice could bear. Sobs were willing themselves out of her chest, but she suppressed them. So young. Such bad luck. Such a handsome family of survivors. There was no headstone yet, so Charice didn’t know his name.
That morning had been the first truly autumnal one of the year, the air crisp and prickly, the smell of trees rich and aged rather than moist and grassy. The cool weather and the promise of early dusk made Charice want to do things that were fallish. She awoke in her apartment smelling the air, feeling the chill in the bumps on her arms, and it made her want to drive to a pumpkin patch or buy big gallon cartons of mulled cider. It made her long for apple crisps and brown betties and thick sweaters worn over tights with boots.
But there was no one who’d want to go to a pumpkin patch with her. No one who’d want to ice nutmeg cinnamon cookies in her tiny loft. There were no hayrides for adults, and every time Charice had tried to go on one alone, thinking it would be a charmingly carefree, eccentric thing to do, she’d just found herself sitting across from the staring faces of detached parents and suspicious children, feeling conspicuously insane.
Now when the urge bit, she just threw on a sweater dress and went to the cemetery behind her condominium. It felt fallish enough. Her favorite area was the tombs. She patrolled around them, feeling their inscriptions and surveying the architecture, sometimes taking etchings of the interesting names. Also enjoyable was staring up into the faces of towering angels and obelisks, squinting against the cool sun. Staring at visiting mourners from afar, snapping photos of their stooping silhouettes with her Nikon. Using the zoom feature to get a good look at them, trying to read the words on their whispering lips.
Charice also liked to examine the gifts left on the graves of dead childen— toy cars, teddy bears, wood nickels, balloons with Dora the Explorer and Snoopy and Fineas and Ferb. Sometimes she found trinkets, recently placed, for children with death dates in the seventies and eighties. When did those long-distraught parents come? Charice didn’t know- she’d long tried to catch them in the act but never spotted them. Instead, she’d camp out behind a bush facing the children’s area of the cemetery for hours at a time, watching, never seeing a guest, only to arrive at the cemetery the next day and find a new Gumby or Cabbage Patch doll placed on Miley Evans’ (1974-1983) or Timothy Tripps’ (1986-1987) plot.
The gifts were placed lovingly, sometimes even with cards or letters. Charice knew better than to take these notes, much as her soul burned to. The parents of the dead children would notice if she stole a gift, they came by often. Somehow they avoided her. Long-suffering, so young, bless their hearts. She only wanted to hear their stories, was that such a crime? She checked several days a week.
That morning, Charice had been roaming the cemetery for about an hour when she found the open plot and the growing group of mourners. She could tell from the tension in the group that this would be an interesting burial. It was raining out of a high, periwinkle sky, and it was easy for Charice to raise her umbrella, bow her face, and wander across the grass and into the crowd.
With seemingly perfect timing, the rain began to rush into a torrent just as the ceremony ended. Charice raised her umbrella and looked around her, shrugging, offering. The crowd was huddling inward upon itself and other umbrellas were popping open left and right. An old man with thinning, silver hair locked eyes with Charice, and she motioned him over and under her umbrella.
What a perfectly rotten day for such an occasion, the old man said, spit flying from his lips.
Sure thing, Charice said. How did you know the deceased?
Science teacher, he said. He looked to Charice like he’d been retired for years. His hand shook as he gripped the umbrella’s metal handle. I’ve seen a lot of kids die, he said, but never this way.
It’s very bleak, Charice said. People were leaving. She watched them slosh across the wet grass, and she looked briefly to the west, where all children’s graves were. The area was empty. Hey, she asked the man, I forgot to write it down, do you know where the reception is?
The boy’s parents lived in a pink colonial near the edge of town, with a big yard and a clear line of sight to the Ba’ahai Temple. Across the street, catty-corner to the house, there was a private golf course somehow affiliated with the state’s forest reserve system. Street parking was easy to find. Everything was edged, and lush, and nearly silent.
Charice took a seat on the living room sofa, nursed a glass of cloudy wine and listened to the discussion unfold. On either side of her were thick-necked middle-aged men in suits, whom she quickly learned were uncles of the dead boy. On the coffee table before them was a framed photo of the boy and his family. He had been handsome, with a wide jaw and swirls of bright blonde hair and high-wattage teeth. He looked obliviously privileged and contented, like a catalog model. Charice picked up the frame and studied it, listening to a woman in the doorway describe what he’d been like as a child. Spunky, the woman said in tears. Never satisfied, you know? Poor dear.
Settled awkwardly in loveseats and perched on ottomans all around the living room were about a dozen people, young and middle-aged and old, holding glasses and balancing thin paper plates of cheese and crackers and Pepperidge Farms on their knees. The old man, the science teacher, was in the den with other relatives and friends, watching football and not speaking, but the living room appeared to be devoted to conversation. Charice found it was easy to disappear and absorb details, figure everyone out. She passed the framed photo around the circle.
That boy was too vain, one uncle said. It wasn’t even a big deal.
Don’t say that, a heavyset woman in purple said, striking him on the knee.
Still, he said. Vanity will get you only one place.
He’s right, a girl said from the corner of the room by the mantle. I saw Chris’ pecks and they were fine, totally fine. She looked down. I mean, he had pecks on both sides even before the operation.
How did they get so uneven? Charice asked, turning to the other uncle on the sofa.
He snorted and chewed a slab of ham and swiss on a club cracker. After a time, he swallowed and said, the damned Del Monte factory. You ain’t know about that gig? He pushed and pushed at the crates with just the one arm. The uncle made a bench-pressing motion with his right arm but not his left. He said, it built him up on one side of the chest but not the other.
So sad, one old woman said to her husband, both sitting across from Charice. He coulda been so much more.
Charice drained her glass and sat it loudly on the coffee table. Hey, she said to the room. When was the last time anyone here saw Chris?
They went around the room telling. For most it had been a few weeks or a month. It seemed anyone who truly knew Chris well was either watching TV in the den or was lagging around in the kitchen, too moved to talk about any of it. That had always annoyed Charice— the people most affected by something were least likely to opine about it. None of these hangers-on had anything to contribute other than to mention how “tragic” it was. When the time came to speak, Charice said she’d seen the boy two months back.
One uncle had seen the boy after surgery. How did he look? Someone asked. Yeah, Charice said, struggling to keep herself from leaning toward him. How did he look?
He looked drained, the uncle said. Like they had sucked something out of him rather than cram something in.
Had the infection set in yet?
Not that I know of, the uncle answered. But they don’t know when or how he got it. And someone to Charice’s left mumbled, bastards.
Touching the other uncle daintily on the knee, Charice asked, Are they gonna sue?
He recoiled a bit, and sat down his plate. Hell if I know, lady, he said. If it’s up to me I think the whole hospital should be burned to the ground. String all the plastic surgeons up.
Amen, she said. She looked into the den. The boy’s mother, brother, father, grandmother, and girlfriend all gathered around the television set, their faces glowing blue, hanging, not a single muscle on them pulled taut. The science teacher was rocking in a chair by the window. Charice wanted to talk to them, but she knew she couldn’t get in.
Nudging both uncles, she pointed into the den and said quietly, you think they’ll ever be the same?
No, said the one on her right. The one on her left said, what’s it to you? After tonight, you and everyone else in this goddamned room will forget about them. Grief’s unseemly like that. No one wants to acknowledge it after too long.
Here here, said an elderly woman wearing a heavy and tarnished-looking wedding ring. The mourning never really ends. But the church has a very good prayer group, a support group for this type of-
I’m not going to disappear, Charice said. I won’t bail on the family, I don’t find grief distasteful.
Like you could help, the uncle on the left said. Crumbs flew from his mouth, and his voice was mushy and wet. What are you to them?
I can’t say, Charice said.
Bullshit. How do you know my nephew, lady?
It would violate my professional ethics to tell you, she lied. I knew Chris as a client, is all I can say.
The uncle on the left licked his lips slowly, scanning Charice head to toe. He said, like a lawyer?
No, don’t be stupid, a woman standing in the doorway said. She means like a shrink.
Charice shrugged. I can’t say.
The other uncle patted her on the shoulder. Tell me one thing then, he said. He rose, and grabbed Charice by the arm. Come with me, here.
They went past the den, through the silent, greasy kitchen, into the dim hallway at the back of the house. A pale pink nightlight and the glow of a bulb in the bathroom was all that illuminated the passage. The uncle stood across from Charice, suddenly looking very bleary. This uncle was stocky, but wide of shoulder and fair like the boy’s immediate family. He was heavier set than the boy’s parents and brother, though, more puffed out in the face. His face was inches from Charice’s, smelling of pepperoni. She was unsure if she was about to be slapped or caressed.
Was he happy? The uncle said. When you talked to him last, was he happy?
Charice’s stomach hit the floor and burst like a dropped balloon. Oh yes, she said. He was so excited to be going back to school. He had so much hope.
This was all a gamble, she didn’t know for sure he’d been planning for school, but it seemed plausible. The uncle was near crying. He wrapped Charice in his bearlike forearms, and his skin was warm yet clammy. Charice decided to pat him lovingly on the back. Oh he was a very bright young man, she said.
The uncle was able to set Charice up with the dead boy’s parents. He told them that Charice had been a private confidant to their son, some kind of counselor, and probably knew a great deal about the boy’s last days, his mood and mental state. They’d tracked her down and requested a series of meetings.
She’d never had an audience with immediate survivors before. She wanted to know everything about their lives, their grief. Did they still see the boy wandering through the house out of the corner of their eyes? Were his personal effects like magic relics to them now? Did they expect to ever stop missing him with every fiber of every cell, every day? Did they wish they could stop yearning for him? Would they trade their memories of his supple infancy and spontaneous childhood if it meant never knowing what they’d lost? Did they picture him as an older man, a father, a grandfather? Did some part of them delight in knowing he’d remain young forever? Would they revel in their guilt and mourning forever? How can offspring die without the parents combusting into atoms?
She didn’t get to ask any of those questions. The grief-stricken didn’t like to be a source of information; Rather they wanted answers. So it was all a terrible waste of Charice’s time. She ate lunch with them and made up stories about their son. Fake discussions, crises, and dreams. She gave them peace with tidy answers. They watched her and absorbed what she had seen of their boy, they took notes and asked to meet again. They emailed her random questions and she obliged them. They drained her dry and she gave suck, delivering cloyingly milky succor until they were finally satisfied.
Charice sat in the bushes by the children’s section of the cemetery. She watched parents and siblings leave meaningless trinkets at the resting places of beings long gone. Winter came and blew icy winds into her vigils, chilling her bones, so she stopped. Unwatched, unwitnessed, the mourning parents still came with offerings of balloons and old toys.
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