Authors: Isla Morley
It is not her body that is a ghost but her smile, so faint I want to rub my eyes to make sure it is there. “I was sorry to hear about it.”
“Don’t be. It all turned out for the best, I think.”
We are quiet again. I catch myself praying for a way forward.
“Today is Ascension Day,” I say.
“Is it? I haven’t been going to church lately, so I’ve not really kept up on all that stuff.”
“Well, I haven’t either. But Jenny’s asked me to go to the service on Sunday, and I thought it might be a good time to say goodbye to some of the folks.”
“She told me you are moving back to South Africa. Are you going for good?”
“I don’t know about ‘for good’ anymore. ‘For now’ is as far as I plan these days.”
She nods. “I know what you mean.”
To the eavesdropping ladies of the women’s auxiliary this might well be quaint afternoon chitchat, no need for a teapot even, but to two mourners this is a truce creeping up on no-man’s-land.
“The thing about Ascension Day, if you think about it, is that it’s about last words.” I might as well have pulled out a revolver and aimed it at Theresa’s head. At first her eyes dart madly, as mine must have done, looking for a way out. Finding none, they spray with tears.
There is a packet of tissues in my handbag, but I am afraid to reach
for them and give her one, afraid the smallest gesture will make her bolt from the car. “I am so sorry to do this to you; I know you have been through a lot. It’s just that I can’t go to a service about Jesus’ last words and not know the last words of my own daughter.”
Theresa lifts the bottom of her T-shirt and wipes her face as a small child might do. She takes a few great gulps of air and then turns to face me for the first time. I look at her, at her black eyes rimmed with red veins. “She was singing,” she says.
Out of all the sentences and words I have imagined Cleo saying, in all the possible ways she might have uttered them—a shout, a screech, a whisper, a yell—I have not imagined a song. And it seems that I did not know my child as well as I should have. Tess walks out on the porch, the corners of her mouth bearing the remnants of pie. Behind her, in the doorway, Loma glares out at the car.
“Do you remember what she was singing?” I ask.
And she nods. “The mommies on the bus go ‘shh-shh-shh.’ I remember because at the hospital, when I could hear you crying way down the hall, that’s all I could think about.”
In Cleo’s version of the song, the bus driver goes “move on back,” the children go “up and down,” the daddies go “I love you,” and the mommies go “shh, shh, shh.” The actions accompanying the mommy verse involve staking a sharp finger to pursed lips and potting atop an equally uncompromising scowl. Daddy, the melody of unsung adoration; Mommy, the rigid rule. Sometimes I would sing it, shuffling the words so Daddy ended up the disciplinarian. But it never worked. Cleo would stop me immediately. “Nononono, the
go shh-shh-shh.” Just once I argued, “But the mommies can go ‘I love you’ too, can’t they?” Who could forget Cleo’s perfect mimicry of her mother’s exasperated tone? “Mo-ohm!” she said, and I relented, but perhaps I shouldn’t have.
“She knew I loved her, didn’t she?” I quaver. Can it be that this is what the blame has been about?
It is a priestly hand that finds mine. “Yes,” my friend says. “Yes, she did.” To her emphatic squeeze, I echo back my thanks, and in that
fleshy Morse, forgiveness offered and accepted has traveled unnoticed by anyone but us.
“I’m going now,” she says, drawing away.
What I want to say is, Don’t, and she is halfway out when I remember. “Wait!” I fumble for my handbag, rummaging through a warehouse till my fingers find the folded envelope. “I want you to have this.”
Taking the envelope, she nods, thinking perhaps it is one of my silly letters, a poem, a photograph. She lifts the flap and, seeing nothing, peers in. What she sees resting at the bottom like alluvial gold is the weight of the world: a blond curl tied with a cerulean bow.
EVEN BEFORE CLEO DIED, I began to think of life as a rather long procession of goodbyes. What started it was a traffic jam on Alakea Street when I glanced at myself in the rearview mirror and saw that a net of wrinkles had been cast over each eye. “Up until yesterday I was young,” I told Greg, who called it vanity at first, then melancholy when I pressed the matter. (Greg was the only person I ever knew, besides dead Greek philosophers, who used the world “melancholy,” as though a cupful of bloodletting leeches would do the trick.) But I believe it more than ever. No sooner have you met the love of your life than he is headed for the door, or you are wishing he would. Friends betray, disappoint, or move to someplace cold, and you are back at the window, waving away. Children come as seeds and just as flighty, dandelion-like, flit away with the first big puff. A beloved tomcat, the only show worth watching on TV, the last empty lot in town: valedictories to all of them. Goodbye to the neighbor who never waved, the house you swore you would die in, the memories you rehearse like times tables; hope the gerontologists are right: that they will return one day when all anybody requires you to recall is whether you had a bowel movement. Hope to God you will remember, instead, the precise smell of your mother’s eau de cologne and the words she spoke when she daubed it behind your ears one night, or your little girl’s squeal of delight when she found the first hidden Easter egg.
The house still has relics of parting even though the movers have taken away all the boxes. The FOR SALE sign is still on the curb, and Solly keeps one eye on me and the other on the pet carrier he hopes isn’t for him. Mrs. Chung and Gillian Beech’s entirely impractical yet tender gesture at goodbye is already dotted with mold even though there is only one perfunctory slice missing from it. Can’t pack cake, but I haven’t the heart to throw it out either.
Even the answering machine, once so adept at hanging up on people, now insists I call everyone back with detailed goodbyes. Greg I do, even though it is mostly to talk about when the pets will be arriving and to give him the details on the portable storage unit. “Take anything you want,” I offer, and though I mean it to be kind, he bristles. “I will write,” I tell him—it is an easy promise, easier than “Goodbye,” easier still than “Forgive me.” But those will come. I rub Solly’s ears. “Not yet, boy,” I assure him, and head for the front door. As I glance back, the house seems gone already.
WHEN I SLIP into the pew fifteen minutes later, Jenny hands me her open hymnal while the congregation sings Isaac Watts’s beloved hymn “Jesus Shall Reign”:
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore
Till moons shall wax and wane no more
A time when there will be no more moons—good or bad—waxing and waning is the best description of heaven I can imagine. I join in on the second verse, looking up between breaths to see the familiar heads.
Petal, with Blossom tied to her in a sling, waves from across the aisle and mouths something incomprehensible. Jenny says it’s her last Sunday too, that she is headed back to England next week. Mrs. Scribner’s new poodle is looking over her mistress’s shoulder like a distracted
child although no doubt she is expected to follow along where Mrs. Scribner’s finger keeps track of the notes. Next to her are Rita and Frank. Frank has his arm over Rita’s shoulder, a sign perhaps that a wedding is on the wind. During the next two stanzas I am able to locate Sylvia Horton in the choir loft; Althea Worthington and her great-nephew in the middle pew, pulpit-side. Carolyn Higa, who is not singing but casting around to see who’s doing what, is seated next to two people wearing military outfits and henpecked expressions. But there are also a number of heads, come to think of it, that I do not recognize. In fact, the crowd seems to have swelled since we left, a point I will omit from the letter I will one day write Greg.
After the hymn, Pastor Penny (as she likes to be called) bounces to the Plexiglas lectern, a new addition to the chancel, below the newly erected PowerPoint screen. Tucking a few impertinent curls behind her ears and sliding her spectacles back up her ski-slope nose in one deft move, she enjoins us to greet one another in the name of Christ. Dutifully, we turn and pass the peace, some with hugs, others with handshakes no less hearty. There is a good deal of crossing the aisle, and a general chaos emerges so that the sanctuary resembles a tailgate party. Bumped along from one congregant to the next, I am suddenly face-to-face with Kelsey Oliver. His hesitation is unmistakable, but my hand, in the momentum of gripping and shaking, extends toward him. “The peace of Christ be with you, Kelsey,” I offer.
“Um, yes. Indeed,” he stutters. “And with you.” For just a beat I don’t let go, realizing all that pomposity is nothing but a scared, sweaty palm.
“Okay, friends,” laughs Pastor Penny. “Back to your seats, please. We do want to be out of here before Denny’s closes for lunch.”
Flashing on the screen is today’s Scripture—the text taken from Matthew’s final chapter. I close my eyes and listen. Perhaps never before, not in the fervor of conversion or in the sit-up-straight duty as the preacher’s wife, have I been so attentive. It is the awkwardness of goodbyes that makes us do what we should have done all along: listen instead of speak. It could be Chicken Little, clucking her warning, for all I care. The ceiling could cave in under the weight of a collapsed sky
and I would not care as much as I do for the grace of knowing Cleo’s last words. Among the rhythms of old come finally the Lord’s:
I am with you always
even to the end of the age
. All through the town.
“ARE YOU SURE you want to do this?” Jenny asks, putting on her turn signal. River Street always comes up quickly, and it is easy to miss the turn. Not something Jenny will want to do when there is a plane for me to catch and a schedule to keep. So as not to distract her, I fire out a quick “Yes,” although the truth is to the contrary. Is there a name for the fear of tight streets? Counting by the calendar, fourteen pages have flipped over since Greg and I last drove down this street. It is both yesterday and a different century.
Someone is painting the door of 121B fire-engine red, the same someone who must have hung the geranium-filled window box in front of what used to be Theresa’s living room window. “Those aren’t going to last long,” Jenny remarks, crossly because she has to be so upbeat about my departure.
“But they look pretty,” I say.
“True,” she retorts, pulling over to the curb across the way. “If you have money to waste.”
Someone else is setting out a trash can. The new door, the geraniums, the discarding of trash are small acts of hope. Before, I used to think living on River Street was like serving a prison term; now it seems more like an act of faith. All anyone can ask of a memorial, I suppose.
“We’re not stopping here, go on down to the end,” I tell her, and when she does there is one small space slurred with an oil stain. “Park here.”
“What are you doing?”
“Park here. I’m going to see if anyone’s home.”
There is a mound of good sense Jenny wants to shovel at me, but I get out quickly and ring the doorbell without looking back. Please, please, please, I find myself praying again.
Sadder than my mirror is the hollow face behind the widening
door. Sadder than a leak, a puddle, a skid mark in the road no one notices.
If his eyes are telling the truth, I have knocked at the door of a cell, perhaps upon the lid of a coffin. He seems not to hear, so I repeat his name, and suddenly his lips crack in concern, with old-people fear. It is a fear of pirates coming to loot leftovers, when all that is left is borrowed time.
“I am Abbe Deighton,” I announce.
One fear passes and another, like a swelling tide, rushes in to take its place. “The little girl’s mother,” he croaks, his cheek perhaps recollecting the last time we met, because his veined hand feathers it.
The door gapes as he gestures for me to enter. Fear recedes for resignation. “I thought you would come a long time ago.”
Wearing polyester trousers, a collared shirt, and a tie, the old man is dressed as though he has been expecting company so long his attire has grown tired of waiting. To the lacquered dining room table he shuffles and pulls out a chair. He pushes aside a half-lost game of chess and takes the seat at a right angle to mine.
“Would you care for some tea?”
I shake my head. “No thank you; I have a friend waiting for me in the car. I can’t stay long.”
I glance up at the ceiling, searching for the words; it sags as though heaven is closing in on us.
“I miss her,” I begin. “I miss her so much.”
“Yes.” He nods, staring at his lap.
“I wish there were a way for her to stay intact, to stay whole in my memory, but I keep losing little bits of her, you know. I have to fight for the memories, even of the little things. Every day it is a fight.”
He nods, probably expecting one now, and his silence makes room for more of my words. “I thought I could never forgive you. I thought as long as I didn’t forgive you, the ending wasn’t written in stone. You
see, I didn’t want it to end, not if it was going to be where someone didn’t pay a price.”
“Price. Yes,” the old man repeats. There is no indication from him that he is impatient for this to lead somewhere, sitting, nodding, yessing like he was waiting for wax to harden. Everything in the room is beige, the palette of someone with but one sorry memory. A dear price, perhaps, has been paid.
Jenny sounds the horn. “I learned something a few weeks ago about blame,” I tell him. “I figured out that for everything that goes wrong in the world, if it’s a baby dying of AIDS on the other side of the world or a car crash outside my friend’s front door, there’s blame. But here’s the thing: either we are all to blame or nobody is to blame.” Mr. Nguyen looks at me for the first time, but I can’t be sure it is with the light on. I can hear the car door open and close, Jenny’s voice calling my name; time to go. “What I’m trying to say is, I didn’t come here to blame you, Mr. Nguyen. I came here so we can help each other with the ending, and the only way I know how to do that is to tell you I forgive you.” My voice is almost a whisper now. “And what I am asking you, Mr. Nguyen, is to forgive yourself.”