Crossing the parking lot closest to the barber’s, Marianne walked through walls of smell. Non-natural. What was it – Desitin? So definite and remembered, nothing comparable — a chalky scent with overtones of cherry life saver. Couldn’t be, could it?
The heat of the three previous days had subsided but not the mugginess. A mass of grey cloud signaled rain, but so far, it held off. The traffic at the corner was obscene — a re-vamped right of way gone amuck. People were up in arms, zinging emails through neighborhoods and sponsoring data collection after the fact. The mayor was gonna have his head handed to him.
In the crosswalk, Marianne looked up to see the clouds spreading out. Or were they gathering other clouds into their mass? Church bells pealed. There was a sense of drama.
Was it just 24 hours earlier — her face crumpled in grief, the vet kneeling in sympathy — that she’d received the news about Ursula’s cancer? Even overwhelmed with the kind of unmitigated sorrow we can only feel for our animals, Marianne recalled her sister’s aggressive question from the day before, “What makes YOU cry?”
Marianne had been tightly unresponsive knowing that any answer would’ve been employed by her in the undeserved campaign to prove her failings. But she’d also been unable to recall a single instance of recent tears.
“Probably Stage IV,” the vet was saying.
“THIS makes me cry,” Marianne thought, “this.”
Just a few minutes into the wave of uncensored grief came the discomforting certainty that, to put it simply, cost would be a factor.
After hearing the price for chemo, Marianne wailed, “We have two kids to put through college!” The two vehicles in need of repair were not mentioned. The vet continued to kneel and nodded without judgment while Ursula sat between them in a quiet sphinx-like pose. Was the dog merely relieved the muzzle was off and the prodding over or did that posture now include a dignified toleration of pain?
The next day Marianne headed back to the van and wondered how long Sam’s haircut would take. Some days they took you in five minutes. Other days, thirty. That was the summer she coached the boys to say, “I want to wait for Sal.” No one should get a terrible haircut out of polite deferral to the random order in a barber shop.
The rain started its slow pelting after Marianne reached the mini-van. The heat being what it was, she sat with the windows open, letting the splatting drops moisten her shoulder and the window berm.
“What makes YOU cry?”
School had ended, finally, last week. Sam took himself to the barber routinely now, so why was Marianne offering rides and waiting, as if he were twelve? “The spiral of development,” her psychologist friend, Winnie, would chuckle. “Not just the kids regressing before transitions.”
Marianne rejiggered the bounds of dependence in both directions. ‘Here’s a credit card.’ ‘Let me pick you up.’ There was a haunting finality to those weeks between high school and college.
White clouds billowed above maple trees to the east, their curves almost precisely replicating the scalloped canopy below. Then the rain came down in sheets.
What would it be, then, this summer? The sad and inexorable cancer vigil, each night wondering if Ursula would still be breathing come morning? Indulging in trips to the beach, determined to make the summer worthwhile, unsettled by the knowledge that the dog was at home trying to breathe? What comfort could the crashing surf offer when the decision about euthanasia hung above the beach like a scythe and flashed in the summer glare.
They went to the White Mountains in July. Ursula’s last outing. The guys all hiked, while Marianne read a Franzen novel at the picnic table and fed Ursula chips of bacon. If it had been any other year, they would have boarded the dog. Now such a decision struck her as incomprehensible, just as how at this distance, preschool seemed so radically unnecessary.
It killed Marianne that all those white haired women at the supermarket had proved to be right in the end. How she’d gritted her teeth hearing advice that was as predictable as it was intrusive: “Enjoy it while you can! It’s over before you know it!” Yeah, lady. I’m just trying to get through the next hour, she remembered thinking.
The next hour and the next hour adding up to an entire childhood. The penultimate haircut before college.
What makes you cry?
“The dog will let you know when it’s time,” the vet had said. At the time, Marianne doubted her but it turned out she was right. Ursula did let them know. The medication helped for six weeks and then it didn’t. Just like that.
During Ursula’s final moments, Marianne fed her nearly a pound of bacon. Her husband choked back tears. The sweet-faced Corgi was lying on a towel the vet had given them in case the dog emptied her bowels at death. Ursula was eager for pork one second and gone the next. Just like that. They wrapped her and the towel in a large swath of red silk. Then the vet showed them a private exit through the lab as a courtesy.
Her husband buried Ursula under the pin cherry out back. They used half of a broken paver stone Marianne and the boys had made ages ago for a marker. The shards of crockery and marbles had been stuck into concrete not quite mixed to last.
And here came Sam at last, looking dapper and ready to meet the world, impervious to the rain.
* * * * * * *
Note: This is a little too long to be flash fiction.
On another note, I consolidated the plot map into one board. Turns out, it was hard to read over two panels and too much light was being blocked.
And, I did finally manage to download a countdown app. The home screen icon (lower right) gets a red number, as noticeable as the number for unread emails.
If I click on the icon, I see this:
(Those are slave cabins at McCloud Plantation). I still can’t really tell if this is a do-able amount of time to finish. Truly. But it seems to be helping me stay focused, so I won’t dicker with it.
After being called into service to help my sister supply the Salem housing authority with a bunch of documentation on Monday, I worried I might have to move the deadline. Fortunately, the task was a lot easier than expected. When and if she gets subsidized housing, I’ll let my brother pay for movers.
Next up. I plan to break the sections on the board into four chunks. Each will then get roughly twenty five days.
A short short and only once read but I find it moving. If I can I’ll read it again.
Deadlines cause stress, at least for me, but they can also make one rally, which I usually do.
On re-read, I find it choppy. Sometimes when I edit my long, rambling sentences in the service of clarity, I lose something essential. This piece is probably still confusing, jumping around in time the way it does. But thanks for your thoughts. I’m not sure about this deadline thing, but probably NOT having one at this point would be more stressful to me.
I love this flash of fiction, feels very real & made me cry
setting a deadline helps the focus and obtusely the best bit for me is enjoying those intriguing little asides that call from the edges of the main game
did it really? (make you cry)? if so, maybe because you have recently felt the kind of grief described?
What do you mean by the little asides from the edges of the game? not sure.
I enjoy a big sprawling project with lots of wriggle room for the dream things that come in from left field, the best example is those 5 Turkey wish bones you gifted me, they incubated for a few years to become “Make a Wish”
Just went to see wishbone creation. Where was I in February last year? Hmmm. Anyway it’s amazing. And I get now what you’re saying about the distillation part of creating. Dream things can’t be forced, can they? With this manuscript, I think part the reason for its looooong incubation and construction (besides caregiving) was to give me time to learn. American history. Ongoing shadow of human bondage. The craft of writing.
Writing fiction has always been a huge challenge for me … I can’t seem to get out of my own head, which is why memoir and blogging are my go-to genres. It is instructive (sometimes in a better-you-than-me sort of way) to watch how this process unfolds for you.
I think if you can write memoir (which, after all is a kind of fiction (current thinking on the genre not my original idea)), then you could write fiction. It sounds like maybe you’ve tried? Or want to? I can’t quite tell.
I told myself for most of my life (even as I recognized that I was a good writer) that I was not a storyteller. A good friend of mine has helped me put that to bed. First she was shocked I said so. Then, for the rest of that visit, she would now and then give a wry smile, “now see? THAT’S a story.” But having said that, part of why I could even tackle this particular story is because the skeleton is laid out in history. There are Eliza’s letters. There are incredible works of scholarship about the period. The timeline was given to me.
I wonder about a next novel (will there be a next novel?). Could I get going and find my way without that skeleton? Maybe I’ve learned enough doing this to have a sense of how to construct without historical underpinnings.
I enjoyed your story, which left me wondering about the relationship with her sister. Perhaps too much one-ups(wo)manship there?
Grammar Nazi sez: bells do not peel. They peal. Unless they’re exotic dancers from the south.
Just reread ur comment. Initial read: one upmanship was reference to your corrections. Funny right? Could be a way to think about the sisters, I guess.