(Short fiction. First published in Zaum magazine).
Jack and I spent our first date walking through the wet grass at the new end of the cemetery, assigning fates to the dead strangers. Dutiful Mothers became neurosurgeons, beloved uncles, sea captains. “Vincietta Grana,” he said, pronouncing one woman’s name in such an American way, all flat vowels. “Born 1910, died 1995. She was an expert lace maker who brought the tradition over from the old world and kept it alive until lace lost its novelty on household appliances and pets.”
I corrected him, saying her name so she sounded as Italian as she surely was in our collective imagination. The ‘c’ sounding like something chilled, a little flick in my voice at ‘Grana’ recalling practiced Italian phrases from my one visit to Italy. He liked that about me; he said, “You’d sound good with an accent. Any accent.” So I tried to sound Japanese and he said, “Well, maybe not.”
On our way out we passed a white awning, pitched and ready over eight green velvet-clad chairs. They faced an open plot, a sinkhole inside an ocean of mismatched green squares of sod, nourished by the dead, supposed to form one convincing lawn. The contraption that lowers caskets into the ground rested on top. Jack said, “Those front row seats must come cheap,” and then we giggled.
I knew right then I could love him because he could joke about death.
Our second date was his mother’s funeral. I stood behind his family hedge of slumped shoulders and crumpling knees. It seemed wrong to wear black since I didn’t know Jack’s mother, worse that the only black outfit I owned was a cocktail dress that showed too much leg and cleavage; it hadn’t been washed since I wore it two weeks earlier on a date to an Irish pub with an Irish thug whose end-of-evening overtures nearly amounted to date rape. The smell of pub was so pungent on the dress, I hallucinated that the flowers crowning his mother’s “new home with a lawn” as he called it, actually smelled like beer and cigarettes.
So many of his relatives had amusing incarnations of the features I liked in his face—that slightly folded right eye, the strong dimpled chin, black hair that turned blue in the sunlight—that I felt like I was in some kind of Kafkaesque dream, and soon, if we stayed together, my face would begin to look like theirs too. Unsure of appropriate behavior I smiled at their questions, answering awkwardly, “Yes, I was invited,” feeling cheap and badly-dressed, like a hooker, hired to distract him.
Afterwards, at the wake that nobody called a wake, I worried that my presence, my foreign body would remind him of what he’d lost. Or that his three jocular brothers standing in a row, each of whose chins appeared slightly larger than the last, would take him aside and council him out of my acquaintance.
Though he and I had walked side by side between these two official dates at least six times in the cemetery chaperoning our dogs, we had never really touched. I had to imagine the shape of his torso under his baggy t-shirts. That cocktail dress was more skin than I’d planned to show so soon. But he asked me to stay the night and even though I knew better—a man in grief is like a leech, my mother once said—I stayed. He said, “It’s a relief,” meaning her death, not necessarily my being there, and though I didn’t really know, I said “I know.”
One night after making love he wanted to know how my mother died. I only told him part of the truth: that she died after a prolonged illness. I didn’t tell him that in the last week of her life (I was eleven), I snuck into her room after my father warned me to leave her be. I climbed up on her bed, straddled her body, watching her labored breathing and that I gripped her by the shoulders and said, “I need to know when.” And I didn’t tell my father that she opened her eyes then, and tried to make a smile, the folds of her nightgown swallowing her neck so that she seemed to be just a disembodied face. She said, “Apparently I missed the four o’clock boat, but they’re sending another one.” And when I should have cried, I laughed. She, too, was funny even at the end.
I stopped counting the number of our dates after ten, thinking I would jinx things. We got along so well, with our shared love of bluegrass music—particularly melancholy fiddle solos—puddle jumping, and loss. I feared that if one of our dogs died the spell would be broken, and so I became the leash-Nazi—Jack’s words. The dogs had to stay on the sidewalk, in our sight, like naughty children. Any sudden leaping or bounding away and I grew frantic and punitive, taking liberties with Serge and spanking him on a few occasions too many. Jack treated me like the bad stepmother at one point, refusing to let me hold his baby’s leash.
Once, when our dates were somewhere between the hundreds and the living together, he stopped in front of the grave of Mr. Edward Worthington and his dearly departed wife, Mrs. Edward Worthington and said, “Wow, he gets double billing in death, and we don’t even know her first name.”
We weren’t going to get married. Maybe I was afraid of becoming Mrs. Jack Pullman at the end, subsumed in the tomb of his world. Or that our shared interests of bluegrass music, puddle jumping and dog walking in cemeteries would give way only to loss, or that one morning I would wake up and there would only be my head floating somewhere above my body, unattached, with his chin and that crooked eye.
I said, “We don’t need the government sleeping between us,” though I knew it hurt his feelings. And he gave me that tiny gold ring on Valentine’s Day, shyly, as if one any bigger might offend me, like the ring might be a tether, a muzzle, a leash.
It was three years before we went on another “official” date.
“I’m feeling stifled by myself,” he told me, after my failed perm made me feel unlovable. He said. “I think we need to start seeing each other.” He knew I’d laugh. By then, after there was nothing but familiar territory on each other’s bodies, on our routine paths through the cemetery, past the soggy new neighborhood community of which his mother was now a resident, perhaps he needed something fresh. And though we both harbored the possibility that a baby might be the next step, our dogs, Mimi and Serge regularly disabused us of this idea by shitting in the house and disemboweling garbage cans in ritual mischief. So we dated again. We started with movies and dinners, bowling and even shopping. But somehow we always came back to walking, counting the “Misses Misters” as we began to think of them: Mrs. Frederick Garner and Mrs. Allen Dietrich and Mrs. Samuel Elling. And if I had known that dating would lead to fighting, I would never have allowed us to start.
He said, “You look tired,” as we laid yellow daisies on his mother’s grave a year later. She got her own name on her headstone, but his father’s name was already etched there next to hers, his birth date the open end of a clause waiting to swallow the rest of his life: Jackson E. Pullman Sr. 1945—
“I’m not tired,” I said, though I was. I wanted Jack to say something funny. Instead he complained about an old running injury in his ankle, and I said, “You’re just jealous of the dead: they get all the attention.” I didn’t know where it came from either, though of course I was thinking about my mother. And even though he was mad, I didn’t feel obliged to make it better. I didn’t care at the moment what the consequences would be. I pushed him further. I said, “No more trophies, Mister high school champion, no more awards ceremonies. Your mother isn’t here to defend you from the world.”
His silence was worse than any yelling. It went on for days, interrupted only by the harmony that our mutts tried to inspire, forcing us to take them out, throw them balls. I wanted to trump his mother’s death with mine, because I was sure I had more pain than he did.
And just when we were trying to decide who should pack and move, he went for that physical exam, and once again we had something big in common.
Cancer patients can get very needy, even clingy, one wife told me during one of his chemotherapy appointments. My husband is like one of my children, she said. This is when it occurred to me, like a forgotten item on a list of errands that we had never gotten to seriously consider having them.
He said, “I’ll give you all the sperm I’ve got,” and I did feel better even though I knew he didn’t mean it. He couldn’t stand the idea of me and a child having fun without him. He felt guilty when we left the dogs at the kennel to go out of town for a weekend. And while he was sleeping one afternoon I remembered that the last time we’d visited his mother’s grave as we bent forward over her headstone, he allowed me to dig dirt out of the granite letters of her name for the first time.
When he was still in the hospital, I didn’t ask when he would be leaving the way I asked my mother; I didn’t want to know. I just hung around, waiting, and even snuck in the dogs with the help of the night nurse, a mousy little redhead named Vivian who had, I think, fallen in love with him those final weeks. I didn’t blame her. Serge whined a bit but licked his face and Mimi came out of her aloof mood long enough to rest a paw on his knee, unprompted. He said to all of us before we left, “Don’t drink all the beer, you kids.” And I said, “You too.”
At his funeral I wore the same little black cocktail dress, because it was still the only black in my closet; it had been hanging between his suits and jackets though and this time it smelled like him, like wood smoke and soap. His brothers’ chins all seemed the right sizes, and I pinched myself for wishing that they would be riddled with cancer too, which would eat away at their shapely jaws, their plump earlobes, their stubbled cheeks; as if by dissolving them I could recreate him.
I also wore high heels on his last day above ground. I wanted to feel their spikes dig into the soft ground with every step. I wanted there to be effort, to notice every plane of my foot as it sunk a few inches below me and then rose up again.
When I came back one week later to make sure his headstone was clean, I waited by the car first as an elderly couple passed by traversing the flat stones, admiring the flowers placed on some of them, reading the inscriptions. I heard the man say, “Fifty-five, so young!” And I wanted to rush over to him and say, “How about thirty-eight?” But instead, I kneeled in front of Jack and imagined aloud different fates for him: a Texas breeder of racing greyhounds, a native winner of the Tour de France, a blues guitarist in an Irish Pub.
These were the only accents I could manage.