“You don’t want to see the body,” said the man with the dirty shirt. “I don’t know how long she was in there before we called the police.”
“You don’t want the last picture you have of your mom being that thing in there,” added his girlfriend, shoving her hands in her pockets, suddenly embarrassed. “I mean, I wish I hadn’t seen her like that, and I didn’t even know her.”
“Thank you for all your help,” said Lee. She did not want the couple to keep talking. Every word that came out of their mouths seemed destined to lay the entire physical tableau of her mother’s suicide out for her. She did not want to know any more than she did.
“After the police are done here, maybe you could come by and get her things?” said the girlfriend. “I asked them to open a window while they’re in there, so it should be pretty aired out.”
“Oh, yeah,” agreed the man with the dirty shirt. “I’ve had this happen lots of times in my buildings, and a day or so after the police have cleared the body out, you wouldn’t even know…well, you know.”
“We’ll be by,” said Jeff, grabbing Lee’s arm and pulling her towards the car. “Give us a call, and we’ll be by to clear out the apartment.”
“Thanks! You guys have a great day!” said the girlfriend, then blushed and ran into the apartment building. The man with the dirty shirt grinned, shrugged, then followed the girl inside.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” said Lee once the couple was gone. She opened the car door and sat down in the seat. Her bare skin stuck to the hot vinyl and burned.
“I can’t believe we only live fifteen minutes away from Mom,” said Jeff. “I can’t believe we still live in the same state as that psycho-bitch.”
“Don’t talk about Mom that way,” said Lee. She could see the police moving around in her mother’s apartment through the window, dark silhouettes behind the fraying lace curtains. “Don’t talk about dead people that way,” she amended.
“Well, just think,” continued Jeff, quickly moving the rearview mirror so he couldn’t see the apartment building. “If we lived in other countries, far, far away, they would have had to call someone else to tell them she was dead, to come and pick up her things. If I lived in Spain, I wouldn’t have to even come to the funeral.”
Lee snorted. “If you lived in Spain, you’d still come to the funeral. If you lived on Mars, you’d come to Mom’s funeral.”
“Maybe,” said Jeff. “Maybe, if only to make sure she was really dead.”
It wasn’t so much a funeral as dropping by the funeral home to pick up Loretta’s ashes. Lee felt more like she was going to the dry cleaner to claim a suit than to collect the final remains of her mother. Originally, she had proposed that the ashes be divided up into two small brass canisters, so that she and her brother could split their mother’s remains up equally, but Jeff hated the idea.
“Knowing you, you’ll give me the box with her ass in it,” he said, half-joking. “Ass and stinky old lady feet. Ass and stinky old lady feet and maybe a little hairy ex-hippie armpit.”
“God, that’s gross,” shuddered Lee. “And totally ridiculous.”
“Really, Lee, I don’t want any part of this.” He was adamant on this point. “I don’t want any part of Mom in my house. I don’t want to talk about Mom to my kids or my wife. I’m coming to Mom’s funeral for you, and no one else.”
So the ashes were not divided in separate mini-urns, even-steven, but dumped into one medium-sized, classy-looking bronze urn, the opening sealed with clear wax and Loretta’s name, date-of-birth and date-of-passing etched in calligraphic letters around the bottom.
“It’s pretty,” said Lee when the funeral director handed it to her.
“Very nice,” agreed Jeff, standing just behind her, his hands jammed in his pockets.
“It was our pleasure,” said the funeral director, bowing slightly. “If there’s anything else we can do for you, please let us know.”
“This is really weird,” Lee whisered as soon as the funeral director was gone. “Mom’s in here. Mom’s in this jar.”
“Yep,” said Jeff.
“I mean, she’s in here.” She held the urn out to Jeff. “She doesn’t weigh hardly anything now.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” said Jeff, backing up a step and putting his hands behind his back. “I’m not touching that thing.”
Lee sighed. “You’re going to have to let this shit go some time,” she said. “Whether you like it or not, she was your mother, and you can’t get away from that. She’s a part of you.”
“How ‘bout I just hang out with Dad, and pretend he was a single parent my whole life?” snapped Jeff. “Dad’s a drunk, but at least he never tried to kill me. Or you,” he added.
“She’s just ashes now,” said Lee, quietly. “Ashes and biology and whatever memories we want to keep.”
“You can’t just pick and choose which memories you want to have,” muttered Jeff. “You can’t just pick and choose.”
Their mother’s personal belongings ended up equaling almost exactly one car load. The apartment manager, who was now wearing a clean shirt, and his girlfriend stood in the hallway and watched as Lee and Jeff filled boxes with photographs of strangers in dollar-store frames, assorted non-prescription reading glasses,sheets of looseleaf paper covered in illegible scribbles, two or three black floppy discs for a computer that no longer existed, a closet full of clothes and shoes with matching purses. “I thought there’d be more,” said Lee when they were finished.
“I know,” agreed Jeff. “You’d think she’d have at least one picture of us somewhere in here, wouldn’t you?”
“That’s not what I meant,” protested Lee, but Jeff cut her off.
“Okay, then, let’s say that I’m surprised there aren’t any pictures of her children in here.” He sighed. “I guess I meant about as much to her as she meant to me, eh?”
“The police hauled some stuff away as evidence, too,” called the manager’s girlfriend from the hallway. She stuck her head in the door and waved, as though asking for permission to speak. “You know, because of the way the bodies were found. They had a real hard time figuring out where one body ended and the other one began.”
“Shut up, Charlotte,” said her boyfriend. “They don’t want to hear about it.”
“What do you mean?” asked Lee. She got up from the floor and went to stand in the doorway. Jeff coughed nervously and followed her.
“Like we told your brother, the heat made the bodies sort of stick together,” continued the girlfriend quickly. “That’s what the police said it was. They said the other lady must’ve died of an overdose, and then your mother must’ve gotten in bed with her and shot herself. They were real close, you know,” she finished, putting her hand on Lee’s arm. “They were a sweet couple.”
Lee pulled away from the woman and shuddered. “You knew about this?” she asked Jeff. “Exactly how stuck together were they?”
“I didn’t ask for details,” answered Jeff. “I tried not to hear as much as I did, to be honest. The guy I talked to on the phone was a fucking ghoul,” he added. “I wish you’d been the one to get the call. I really do. Since you actually give a shit about all of this.” He pushed past Lee and the couple in the hallway and stormed outside.
“So whose ashes do I have?” Lee shouted after him. “Is that why you didn’t want any of the ashes, because they’re not all Mom’s? Because they belong to some fucking junkie she shacked up with for less than a year?”
“They were both really nice ladies,” protested the manager’s girlfriend. She looked like she was about to cry. “I didn’t know there were drugs in here at all. I never would have guessed.”
“I didn’t think it was any of my business,” began the manager, then stopped. “I didn’t know either,” he amended quietly.
Lee shot him her most awful look and grabbed one of the boxes and stumbled out to the car. Jeff was standing by the car, looking down at the street. The urn was in his hands, the seal broken, the lid on the ground by his feet.
“Now you don’t have to wonder who’s in here,” he said when he saw Lee. He shook the last of the ashes out into the street, where a thin stream of muddy runoff quickly carried the gray soot into the waiting cistern. “You don’t have to wonder, because there’s nothing in here. There’s nobody here.” He handed the empty urn to Lee, a weird, strangely triumphant look on his face. “Now you can keep flowers in it,” he added. It would look really nice with fresh flowers in it.”
Lee held the empty urn, reading her mother’s name, date-of-birth, date-of-passing, and the name again, over and over. Finally, she reached down and grabbed the lid, replacing it with a firm twist so it wouldn’t fall off on it’s own.
“Wouldn’t it be ironic if I used it as a cookie jar instead?” she asked Jeff, smiling wryly.
“Oh, since we never had cookies at home ourselves?” He laughed, and it was such a free, genuinely happy sound that Lee almost hugged him right then and there. “That would be hilarious. Christ, now I wish I had asked for my own urn.”
“We could go back to the funeral home and see if they’d make us another.”
“Nah,” said Jeff, throwing his arm around his sister and running one finger over the inscription on the urn. “You can have it. I’ll bring the kids over next weekend, and we’ll all eat cookies out of it. In honor of Mom,” he added, nodding. “Have to believe that she’d like that.”
Holly Day is a housewife and mother of two living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her poetry and fiction has recently appeared in Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Oxford American, and Slipstream. Her book publications include Music Composition for Dummies, Guitar-All-in-One for Dummies, and Music Theory for Dummies, which has recently been translated into French, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese.