I’ve been taking a little break from the novel business to work on a short story, so I figured I’d share a little excerpt here.
Not sure where the idea spawned from, but I recently found myself digging through some folders on my flash drive, and came across a paragraph or two I’d written months ago. My interest in it was re-sparked, so here are a few bits and piece of where it has gone since then!
When my mother died my father locked the car doors and we sat burning in the heat of the windshield for what felt like days. Her body lay somewhere in the belly of a morgue, a thumbprint on a white sheet that had been washed and used and reused. Her hair looked nice but her face looked different, sunken and wide, something pushing from the inside at the edges of her mouth and cheeks, a look of disappoint in her lips.
My mother had never worn more than a thin layer of eyeliner and never did more to her lashes than curl them with a metal object, and now she was done up like a carnival clown. Her skin had always been a palate of pastels: the color of the soft earth in our garden, the shade of the roses, the tint of the stepping stones, hues of pink and purple and blue spilling out at me like Easter morning. But death and the mortician had darkened her, turned her colors to those of late fall, when the world is most vulnerable.
I stared at the backs of knees in a slow-moving sea of black cotton, harmonies of silverware and whispers flooding the fuzzy space between my ears. I had never understood why people speak in such low tones when a loved one dies; they can hear you still – loud or soft or not speaking at all – from a throne of white, perched on the roof, taking up corners in the living room, unseen. Hands of strange passersby gave my thin shoulders small sympathetic squeezes (always with one hand, the other balancing a paper plate bending under the weight of pasta splattered with red sauce, and someone’s homemade potato salad), a learned response to death and all of those things that follow it.
I weaved through the crowd from our living room to the kitchen. A group of women stood near the granite island, the same look of disappointment in my mother’s face now reflected in each of theirs. One turned as I entered the room; red hair the fiery color of autumn was ignited at the edges as sunlight poured in from the window behind her. I lifted a hand for shade. Her green eyes softened and one corner of her mouth rose in a defeated half smile.
“Sarah,” she said. My name spilled from her mouth as a sad melody; “Sar-” a high pitched tune, the “ah” fading into the low range of an Alto. It was the safe song of grief and gentle condolences.
“Hi,” I replied. My own voice sounded smaller than usual, higher, even for seven. It’d been hours since I’d spoken to anyone.
She crouched to my level, away from the rest of the gossiping women, her knees making a loud cracking sound on the way down. Once at eye level I realized her hair color was probably not her own. She smoothed the wrinkles in her dark pencil skirt. I breathed in, the sweet, thick scents of a neighbor’s string bean casserole and someone’s blueberry pie filling my nostrils. My stomach moved in waves.
“Your mother was one of my best friends. I’m so sorry.”
I stared. What did it matter? Years later, after several encounters with death, I’d come to realize that in the face of personal tragedy people always blurt out their relationship status with the freshly departed.
“We went on a date once,” a high school classmate choked out between tears, after sophomore Andrew Sharpman hung himself in his parents’ attic.
When the little blonde girl two streets over was hit by a drunk driver while she chased a ball across the concrete, a neighbor at the funeral cried out to anyone who would listen: “I bought her an ice cream once,” she said.
I gave her a slight nod as if it was my turn to console her and she smiled, rising up again to dab at her face with a wrinkled tissue. She faded back into the crowd of other mothers who looked as I walked by, bits and pieces of “just a shame” and “what now” being dropped in my path.