by Ilene Raymond Rush
On the drive back from her mother’s funeral, Lily sees Ruth everywhere. On Baltimore Pike outside Springfield Mall, headed into a Dunkin’ Donuts, outside the Salon Paradiso, where she went to get her hair done every Saturday. From the window of the gray hearse, seated beside her sister, Annie, Lily holds her breath, certain that there has been a terrible mistake. Surely they have buried the wrong person in her mother’s grave.
Issue #124 soundtrack: Cor Blanc “Candle Light”
She keeps these sightings from Annie, who is sniffling quietly into a lace handkerchief, head bowed. Unlike Lily, who has not shed a single tear since the news of her mother’s passing, Annie has done nothing but cry. At the cemetery, Annie had leaned over and whispered in her ear.
“Lily,” she asked, “where did Mom go?”
Annie’s words echo in her ears as the hearse pulls up to her sister’s driveway and deposits them on the curb. At the front door, they wash their hands and then enter the family room, where Annie’s friends have set out a deli buffet. Lily looks into the dining room and sees her mother sitting at the head of the table, reaching for a slice of smoked lox, and quickly closes her eyes.
“Lily.” Her older cousin Mark pulls her into his arms. “How are you holding up?”
“Great,” she lies.
She wants to point to the dining room, but her mother has disappeared. Mark takes her elbow. “Let’s get you a drink,” he says.
At the drinks table, she watches him drop two ice cubes into a cup, then pour in a finger of Scotch. She drinks it in a single gulp and then holds it out for a second hit. The thing about grief, she thinks, is how it mellows everyone out. Since her mother died on Tuesday morning, everyone has been so nice – her colleagues at her psych practice, her clients who had to weather cancelled appointments, her friends. She sips at her second Scotch, welcoming the warmth that drops down into her stomach, then holds her glass as Mark fills it again.
“Better?” he asks. Lily nods as she spots her mother through the doorway of the family room, typing away at the PC. Lily stares: Her mother has never typed on a computer in her 83 years of life. Not once. And she has changed from the shroud she was wrapped in at the funeral home to her shocking pink suit, her favorite. But Lily happens to know that she gave that suit to the Goodwill five years before. While Lily contemplates what this means – has her mother gone thrift shopping in death? — Ruth, always a teetotaler, takes in Lily’s glass and shakes her head.
“Drinking?” she asks her oldest daughter. “Again?”
Lily opens her mouth to respond but before she can, her sister, Annie, appears at her side. “I can’t wait until this is over,” she says.
“I know,” Lily nods. She thinks of telling Annie what she has seen, but doesn’t want to upset her more.
A large woman reaches for Annie’s hand, pulling her from Lily’s orbit. Lily refills her glass, and wanders through the crowd. Ruth was the last of seven sisters and brothers, and the room is packed with first and second cousins, all of whom want to tell Lily and Annie how much their mother will be missed. In this living room, as one of the two daughters of the deceased, Lily is a kind of star. People crowd to get close to her, to share their reminiscences, to ask her how she is. She smiles and nods, feeling the Scotch kick in.
“I’m really fine,” she tells everyone again and again. She finds herself on a sofa, retelling the story of her mother’s death – how she was headed to see her and a nurse in the building called while she was stuck in traffic to report that she was in cardiac arrest.
“Oh,” says her Southern cousin, Lee. “Don’t feel bad. There was nothing you could do.”
“I don’t feel bad,” Lily says. “I don’t even feel sad.” She sees puzzled glances, grim looks, and she wants to explain, but it’s complicated. She doesn’t feel sad. She feels numb and confused and puzzled, as though she’s been presented with an enormous mathematical problem that she has no hope of figuring out. Like Einstein’s theory of relativity or Hawking’s theory of everything. How to resolve the mystery of a mother who interloped in and disapproved of every aspect of her life and then disappeared without a trace, leaving only a lifeless shell behind? She is at a loss with so much loss. Annie and she had sat with her mother’s body for two hours, waiting for the funeral directors to arrive, but though Lily saw the body, she never believed for a second that sharp and opinionated mother, who had never, ever let anyone get in the last word of any argument, had truly, completely fled. Annie’s question flutters in her head: Where had Ruth gone? And when did she plan to return?
“I’m here.” Lily looks up. Above her sister’s head, her mother flaps a shocking pink arm. Lily swings around. People turn, thinking yet another distant relation has entered the room. She considers saying something about Ruth’s return but resists. It’s the last thing Annie needs, so instead, she grabs the half-finished bottle of Scotch and, muttering apologies, pushes her way through the crush and goes out the back door onto Annie’s driveway, charging down the blacktop until she reaches the street.
On the sidewalk, she lifts the bottle to her lips, swallows, and then swallows again. From the corner of her eye she watches as her mother’s mustard Impala comes toward her, the headlights breaking the dusk. At once, she knows it was her mother. The old woman would not have disappeared into nothingness without a word. It was against everything she believed.
Eyes on the approaching headlights, Lily waits, expectant. When her mother steps out, she straightens her back in anticipation, ready to tell her how she has given them such a fright.
Footsteps approach; she squints to make out the shadowy form.
“Jesus,” a voice says. He comes closer. It isn’t her mother; it’s her estranged husband, Del. “You smell like a fucking distillery.”
Face to face with Del, her husband of 23 years and three months, all she feels is disappointment. She knew it was her mother and yet, here stands Del, dressed in his second-best suit, his hair a mass of greying curls. She sways, for the first time that day thinking of crying, and he grabs her elbow.
“Whoa, there,” he says. “How long have you been at that bottle?”
She shakes her head and lets him pry it from her fist.
“You were supposed to be my mother,” she says.
“That’s a mouthful,” Del says. He swings the bottle of Scotch to his lips and takes a draught. “We haven’t taken that road before.”
“No,” she says. “You don’t understand. My mother was coming down the road, but you got out of the car.”
She waits for Del to tell her she is crazy, but instead he takes her arm and leads her to the wall beside the driveway, where he sits her down.
“You’re having hallucinations?”
“She’s everywhere,” she says. “Del,” she leans closer to him. “She isn’t really dead.”
Del waits a second. “I’m glad to hear that,” he finally says. “I was very fond of Ruth.”
“And she was fond of you,” Lily says. “She didn’t trust you as far as she could throw a stick, but she did like you, Del.”
Del nods. He sets down the bottle and pulled out a package of cigarettes, a surprise.
“You don’t smoke,” Lily says.
“Desperate times,” Del shrugs.
He lights one, then passes it to Lily. “So, where exactly is your mother?” he asks.
“That’s the thing,” Lily says. “I don’t know. I see her, but I can’t hold onto her. It’s very, very strange.” She leans back on the wall and inhales. Smoke tears up her eyes. “Do you believe me, Del?”
“I’ve seen stranger things,” Del says. He doesn’t elaborate, only looks up the driveway. Inside, lights are on and shadowy figures pass by the windows. The sun has gone down and the air is chilled. She shivers.
“Are you cold?” Lily nods. “Shall we head in?” He points up the driveway.
“No. Not yet.”
He takes her arm.
“Let’s sit in my car, then,” he says. Gingerly, he escorts her to the back seat of his Subaru – not the mustard Impala after all -- then slides in beside her. Through the windshield, she sees her mother. Lily squeezes shut her eyes. Behind her eyelids, everything whirls. Her mouth tastes of Scotch and smoke, and then she feels Del lift his right arm and slide it around her shoulders. They stay like that for quite some time, then Del, moving slowly, leans over and gives her a kiss.
She knows she should object. She knows that this was completely wrong, that she and Del are through. But at that moment she has a thought – that this, she and Del, sitting here – is what her mother had wanted. How she had hated the idea of their breaking up. How anxiously she had hoped that someday, they might be right here, hip-by-hip, lips locked, Del sliding a hand up her thigh. As usual, his touch drew electric sparks from her skin. Sex had never been a problem between them; at least not until the end. Then, anger had taken over, a white-hot anger that he could care so little about her for so many, many years.
Del’s lips are at her ear.
“I miss this,” he whispers.
She thinks of giving in, of lending herself to the pleasure of what Del has to offer. To feel something, anything, that is clear. But after that, what? Another puzzle.
Sitting up, she pushes him away.
“What are we doing?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” she hears Del say.
It’s not the right answer. But what is? Outside the car, she sees the hem of her mother’s skirt. Her mother is floating by a tree, staring at the stars. Look at me, Lily wants to cry. But her mother’s gaze is elsewhere, as though she has more important things on her mind.
Del turns her chin towards him. “What do you want, Lily?”
She blinks, trying to keep her eyes towards her mother in the sky. In all the years of their marriage, she has never heard him ask this question. Which couldn’t be true. But what they talked about was what he wanted, what he needed, what he felt. Through separations and reconciliations. Through raising a daughter, burying a dog. It had taken her mother’s death to finally break the spell.
“Del,” she says, “give me your phone.”
She looks at him. Does she still love him? Sure. Does she still want him?
The answer comes over her so quickly that it shocks her. She turns her head from him as her mother starts to rise higher in the sky.
“I’ll see you up there,” she tells him.
Outside on the driveway, couples come down arm in arm, women tripping in high heels, men with loosened ties. If Annie knew what she had almost done during the Shiva, she would never forgive her. Ever.
“Go,” she tells him. “Tell Annie I’m on my way.”
Del looks at her for a moment as though he’s about to say something, then silently hands over his cell. If he had fought for her, if he had acted as though this meant something, who knows what she might have done?
But he had not.
She watches him make his way through the descending couples and when she can no longer see him, she taps out the familiar number. The phone rings once, twice, three times, and her mother answers.
“You’ve reached Ruth Manheim,” her mother says in measured tones, making sure to enunciate every word. “Leave a message after the beep.” Her voice rises at the end or the sentence, an invitation to respond. In a few days, Lily knows that even this will be gone.
“Mom,” she begins. There is so much she wants to tell her: about Del, about love. About how she wanted to get the last word, just once, but never could. How she forgives her for everything.
Outside, her mother had disappeared from sight. In the car, Lily cranes her head to get a final glimpse, her fingers tight around the phone. “Mom!” she cries.
Ilene Raymond Rush's work has been published in a number of publications, including Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Saturday Evening Review and Philadelphia Stories. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, she has won an O.Henry Award for her short fiction. She lives in Elkins Park with her husband and dog, Noodle.
Hannah Perry's illustrations have been featured in the Society of Illustrators Student Scholarship Exhibit 2016, and the Body Space Exhibit at Rabbit Hole Gallery 2016. She co-founded the all female art collective Fem Foundry which features my work and the work of others in biweekly publications. Additionally she does freelance illustrations for Amazon Publishing's literary magazine Day One. For more, visit hannahperryart.com and follow her on Instagram.
Cor Blanc is based in Barcelona, Spain. Mireia Bernat and Sergi Serra Mirare's songs embrace the dreamy side of pop. Cryptic lyrics surrounded by an unreal atmosphere of delicate rythms and folk pop melodies. Pròleg en Fred is their first release -- eight home recorded songs that submerge us in the mysteries of love and desire. Listen on Bandcamp and follow them on Facebook.