Looking for love in all the wrong places.
Originally published as a Tin House Flash Friday selection, March 2, 2018.
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These visits home famished me. A kiss, another, then I breezed into the kitchen, doddering parents following like geese, toting the cups of tea Marva had made for them. They sat at the table; I sailed into the refrigerator’s cool embrace. Upstairs, the sound of vigorous vacuuming.
“You know …” my mother began, pitching the word high. It hung in the air.
“Yes?” A few slices of Swiss, edges cracked and curling, in crumpled paper.
“You know I don’t want to be put in the ground.”
“I know. You want to be cremated.”
“No worms crawling through my eyes!” she chirped.
“Got it.” A bowl of cereal, swollen flakes, gray banana.
“Well, your father …”
His chair groaned.
“… has an announcement.”
In the crisper, a collapsing cucumber oozed.
“Buried,” he said, teacup slamming saucer.
“And?” she prompted.
A monumental, forlorn intake of breath. “Jewish-style.”
A livid bruise marred the cottage cheese.
“So!” Her teacup hit saucer with a brittle clink. “Now he’s a Jew.”
Indeed, this was the man devoted to working the holidays his brethren rested, who denied us the feasts of Passover, the gifts of Chanukah. My father’s priggish faithlessness was the stony ground in which I’d failed to bloom. Tuna in an opened can, turning sepia at the edges.
“L’chaim,” she mocked. To life.
Let her contempt be passion, the residue of love. Even in this sprawling house, they sat side by side.
A porcelain tremor erupted from my father’s Parkinsonian hand. “Everyone’s got to be something,” he bellowed. Then, pointedly, “Except your mother, Queen of Nothing.”
“Let the worms eat your eyeballs,” she said.
A plastic takeout container’s lid veiled in condensation; a Chinese artifact I didn’t dare disturb.
“Your mother,” he slurped, “her ignorance is a disgrace. Jews don’t cremate, Roz. You know why? Nazis.”
He rarely spoke the word. As a child in Germany he’d been chased by a gang of Hitler Youth. Turns out they were chasing him to the grave.
When I was young this refrigerator gave me its milk and OJ, its apples and grapes, cold cuts gleaming in Saran Wrap, bountiful leftovers—steak, spaghetti, meatballs. Now, one egg, cracked, stuck to its carton. The only hint of abundance lay in a plump paper bag marked “Marva.”
Her rambunctious vacuuming continued overhead. This Columbian woman, ageless and timeless, had been cleaning the house, once a week, for fifteen years. We were continuously charmed by the piles of coins, earrings, the occasional pen, or watch she left in her path.
“Jesus, Trevor, doesn’t your wife feed you?”
“I can feed myself, Mom—if there’s food.”
Janice and I had recently agreed to alternate weekends in the apartment. It was my turn to vacate, hence this visit. But I’d rather talk about death. “So, Dad. Rabbi, pine box, the whole mishpachah?”
“Megillah,” he said. “The whole megillah.”
“God, Stanley. You’re not going to make me sit shivah. My sciatica—
“I couldn’t care less; I’ll be judged by my choices, not yours.” He sighed, punctured by the thorn of truth. Then, reinflating, “Trevor, there’s a cemetery off Roundtree. Jewish. Bloomberg’s got his parents there. Soros has plots for the whole mishpachah—even space for an extra wife.”
“Dream on, Stanley.”
“I know that place.” How would I get him in? He’s wasn’t a member of a temple, let alone a billionaire.
“Well,” my mother said. “You can do what you want with my ashes. I’m not fussy. Just promise me, please. No water. I hate getting wet.” Her shudder was so genuine it shook me too.
“I promise.” A child; she couldn’t face a bath, let alone death. I mourned for us both.
An idea lit within me like a small bulb. I closed the refrigerator enough to glance and smile. “We’ll sprinkle you over Dad’s grave.”
Her face softened, eyes fluttered.
Her ashes falling upon his earth, would be their reunion, my happily-ever-after. Relieved, I turned to the freezer for ice cream.
“No. No! Absolutely not. No ashes. It’s a desecration.”
What the fuck? I pulled my head from the freezer. “Because she was cremated?”
The ice cream was jagged with crystals.
“Let him have his stupid cemetery. I’ll stay in the house.”
“Yeah, we’ll leave you in the fireplace when we sell.”
“Fine,” she said.
I retreated into the refrigerator.
“Christ, Trevor. Do you think something’s going to magically appear?” she said.
Was there anything behind Marva’s bag? It had heft. Upstairs, she was singing, the vacuum rumbling along. I would hear if she stopped. A crayoned heart decorated it. She has a daughter. She’d shown me her picture. And a husband with proud, adoring eyes who dropped her off and picked her up.
I peeked inside. A container of arroz con pollo, green olives, red pimentos, and yellow rice. Avocado slices still bright—someone must have rubbed them with lime. And a fat black plum ready to burst.
Beyond the door, my parents slouched—he, gaunt, she, slack, spotted with age. This was all there was. The gurgle of a stomach filled the silence.
The plum—full as a belly, generous as a breast. Its flesh gave way, its juice flooded my mouth. With the pit tucked in my cheek, I refolded the bag and placed it back where it had been. I closed the refrigerator door and, always the good son, cleared the cups and saucers from the table. I put them in the sink where Marva would give them a quick wash before she left. I placed the pit on one of the saucers.
That marvelous plum. The next day, Janice and I agreed to divorce. The next week Marva, having noticed the missing fruit, arrived at my parents’ with a bag of groceries. I buried my father a few rows over from Soros. When my mother died, I left her ashes in the fireplace.
Ken Sandbank recently left a career in advertising to write fiction and is very glad he did. His work has appeared in Tin House and the Barcelona Review.
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