Rebellious Choice – scrap of fiction

No one ever tells us where the red brick road leads.

No one ever tells us where the red brick road leads.

Just a little pinprick. Wasn’t that a scrap of song lyrics? Okay, okay, okay, just a little pinprick. There’ll be no more ahhh. Yeah, Pink Floyd. Not the one that air heads and acid heads with their ice cream habit listened to while watching the vertically challenged inhabitants of Oz dance like San Francisco queers down the yellow brick road. And where the hell does one end up if one dances like a fucking queer down the road constructed with red bricks? No one ever says. No. Not that one. Not that song. Just a little pinprick. Comfortably Numb. That was the song. Fuck. But what was the album? Does it matter? Well, yeah. The Wall. Another Brick in the Wall. The song about not conforming. But then you have to balance that out with Comfortably Numb. The song about being institutionalized. Because you think that the pinprick is a good thing. You’re thinking jojee and the sweetness that flows into your veins like the moonlit breeze that insinuates itself through your window in summer. You’re thinking joy popping with Aunt Hazel and the thick mellowness that drags at your eyelids like sandman sleep. That’s not the pinprick. Because after the pinprick, there’ll be no more ahhh. The pinprick takes that away. The pinprick is the fucking yellow brick road that leads back to nice, normal Kansas.

Fuck that shit. I’m dancing down the red.

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I Am a Cyclist

bike signAt times when I get on my bike, I feel like a little kid playing pretend. I feel small, holding on to handlebars that are high above me. I watch the peloton racing by, their moisture-wicking jerseys and padded pants signifying passion, and I look at my t-shirt and leggings and bright pink girly helmet and feel like a piker–small-time and amateurish. A piker biker. I feel like a little kid, as though I should have multi-colored streamers flowing from my handlebars.

At the same time, something–rebelliousness mixed with joy–rises in me. Who the heck cares? Do the other bikers care? Of course not. Does my bright pink girly helmet protect my head? Yes. And my t-shirt and leggings are what I have right now. Eventually, I will get padded bike shorts, maybe a better saddle, a jersey that I’ve earned from a ride.

But for now, I’m okay with what I have. I can be that little kid. I didn’t ride a bike when I was young. No particular reason, I just walked everywhere. Now, however, when I’m on the bike, I feel free. Cliched, maybe, but true nonetheless. I am free. I am uncluttered. I am unfettered. I am grinning like a little kid as I go down hills, enjoying the feeling of my hair flying out behind me. I am a cyclist and I will not be stopped.

I am a cyclist.

Wisp Part Five: Luz

This is the fifth and final part of the story Wisp. The parts in order are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. The links will open in a new window. As always, feedback is welcome.

Luz

Air drawn in through her nostrils fought its way to her lungs. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest felt constricted, compressed as though cinder blocks sat on top of it. The breath tried to wend its way through the small holes, shuddering and inept.  Respira, she commanded. Apenas respira. It was just a job.

Luz relaxed her grip on the steering wheel, aware in that instant that she had dug half-moons into the vinyl and had broken the nail on her fourth finger in the process. She glanced over at Franny, short for Francesca Maria, who was playing with her Barbie, oblivious to the world around her. She pulled the perfect platinum hair into a ponytail and then smoothed it out again. Luz could hear her whisper-singing, “Little bunny Foo-Foo hopping through the forest, scooping up the field mice and thumping them on the head.” Luz particularly despised the song, but she couldn’t resist Franny’s gales of laughter at the bad pun, “Hare today, goon tomorrow,” even though she couldn’t possibly understand why it was funny. Her next door neighbor had explained to Luz why it was funny; while the words might translate into Spanish, the pun, and therefore the humor, didn’t.

“Did you have a good time at kindergarten?”

Franny nodded and kept singing.

“Would you like it if we spent more time together?”

“We can’t,” she said in her most adult voice, repeating what she had heard said many times before. “We can’t because Mommy has to work.”

But Mommy doesn’t have a job anymore, she wanted to say. The words, though, remained lodged in her throat, choking her as surely as if they were a piece of meat.

Her boss had been very nice about it. And no one had ever really accused Bargaining Bill of being nice. He had taken her into his office, the large corner one on the second floor where the customers were never allowed. The windows overlooked the entire car lot, and from this vantage point, the concrete dotted with shiny colorful Matchbox-looking cars seemed to go on forever. Salesmen in their laid-back “we’re just like everybody else” sports shirts and khaki pants weaved in and out of the car aisles, video-game predators in search of prey. Did Bargaining Bill control them from this window?

She sat down in the seat he motioned to. Behind her were all the television promotional pictures of Bargaining Bill, and she could feel their eyes boring into her back. They were all there: Superman, the Cowboy, the Apollo 13 astronaut, the Fireman, the Indiana Jones adventurer, all of them saying that there wasn’t a bargain that he wouldn’t make in order to “get you into a new car — a Bargaining Bill car.”

“Luz,” he started, and she cringed. He always pronounced her name so that it rhymed with “buzz” instead of “bruce.” She heard someone once say that her name rhymed with “loose,” and everyone laughed. She didn’t understand why until much later.

“Luz, I’m sure you’ve noticed that business has gone down.”

She glanced out the window. She had heard that, but it didn’t look like it from up here.

“We’re making lay-offs in every department, and I’m sorry, but you’re the most recent receptionist. We’re going to have to let you go.”

She sat silently for a moment, unsure if she had heard correctly. Sometimes she still had trouble with English. “You are firing me?”

“No, no!” he said, his hands patting the air in front of him as though it were a dog he was commanding to stay. “Laying employees off is different.”

He had kept talking, using the same tone of voice she had heard him use to sell cars, but to Luz’s mind, getting fired and getting laid-off meant the same thing: no job. She wondered if his customers felt the same way she did, echar un polvo. Screwed.

The car behind her blew his horn, startling her out of her daze. She waved and started forward. The tears, which she had kept from Bargaining Bill, were threatening now, as though the car’s impatient blast had summoned them.

What would Manuel say? She took a deep breath and let it out. He would be glad, she had no doubt. He had come across the border six years ago and had gotten work in two different restaurants bussing tables. The money was good, almost as good as his false papers were. He had taken care of her and Franny, his mother and grandmother and two aunts. Un hombre in the midst of las muchachas. Women, she could almost hear him say, a smirk lifting his lips. It had made him more of an hombre to take care of all the women, the celebrated Mexican machismo. Strange, but in her eyes it had made him more a man as well. And even when he came home after working two jobs, sweaty and exhausted, smelling of left-over grease and dish soap, he wasn’t too tired to bed his wife.

Then she had gotten the job at Bargaining Bill’s New and Used Cars as a receptionist. She had secretly been looking for a job to help out, afraid that he wouldn’t understand her desperate need to get away from his relatives for a time. She had convinced them that the time away would be good, as would be the time they had to themselves when Franny went to school in the morning and daycare in the afternoon. She had it all planned.

And for a time, it had been good. They made more money than they knew what to do with, and it seemed the American Dream was theirs for the taking. They had moved from the cramped one-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom. They still hung up a sheet to separate their bed space from Franny’s, but it felt more open; the breathing room felt more plentiful, as wide open as the mountain state they lived in.

Manuel, though, struggled with the fact that his wife made more money than he did, and for a while, the sex between them wasn’t as good, even with his mother finally in a different room. Luz didn’t want to admit it, because her taking a job had been her idea, but her respect of him had diminished when his salary did. Because she was on the phone all day, transferring calls to different departments, answering customer complaints when she could, she learned English must faster than Manuel had done. She had even begun listening to the car salespeople, convinced that eventually she could move up in the company. Not that she would ever leave Manuel, as some of her co-workers had done. Buenos Dios, no! He was still her esposo, the man, the head of her family.

Then Manuel had slipped in a puddle of water he hadn’t had a chance to mop up. He said he had felt his back pop when he hit the floor. And just like that, as fast as a back popping, Manuel had lost two jobs and incurred several medical bills. Worker’s comp was out of the question. Everyone knew he was an illegal, and he had no desire to risk the INS. She became the head of the family, but she cried when he called her la jefa de la familia.

And now this. What were they going to do? She saw them sometimes, the homeless who waited and asked for handouts on the corner. Even in summer, they wore layers of clothing, as old and worn out as their faces, as crumpled as the dollar bills that some pressed into their hands. They held signs, some that she couldn’t read, bemoaning whatever fate had befallen them. “Lost Job, Need Cash.” “Single Mother.” “Vietnam Vet, Please Help.” “God Blesses Generosity.” What would her sign say? She had seen them spit on, yelled at, chased by cars, seen soda cans thrown at them. “Get a job!” was always followed with a name that she wouldn’t call the street dogs in Mexico. What if they couldn’t get jobs? What if they were like Manuel and could no longer walk without much pain?

What if they were like her?

Where did they live, she wondered. When the day was done, when the number of cars passing any intersection had dwindled to almost nothing, where did they go? Did they sleep in the park or in abandoned houses? Did they stay in shelters where they had to listen to sermons before they would be fed?

Would she be one of them?

Would they sleep under bridges, she and her beautiful daughter who could sing “Little Bunny Foo-Foo” and who thought that Barbie was the ideal woman?

A tear rolled down her cheek, and she swiped it away before Franny could see.

At the next stoplight, she saw the smoke. She passed by the Henry and Green Mortuary and Crematorium every day on her way home from work, its cream-colored brick and burgundy sign somehow comforting in its very presence. It had always been and it always would be. Across the street from it, the restaurant had changed from a Pepe’s to a McDonald’s then to a Popeye’s Fried Chicken. On the other side, the gas station had closed months ago and had never been replaced with anything except weeds in the cracks of the concrete.

The crematorium, though, had remained, solidness in a shifting world.

But now smoke was coming out of the smoke stack, billowing blackness into the clear and crisp late afternoon air. Of course, she knew that they burned the bodies. Of course. It was a crematorium. But she had never seen the smoke. She assumed they did it at night for the sake of taste, for the sake of the families. For the sheer sake of humanity.

It reminded her of stories she had heard of the Holocaust where smoke stacks had belched forth human remains every day for years. Some said it had blackened the sky so much that the stain of the Great Sin committed against God’s people could never be erased. A friend who had visited Germany confirmed this. Even years after the war, the air remained bleak, dreary, awful. She now understood why in a way that she couldn’t have before.

The tears flowed freely now. Who had the people been? Had they been loved? Would they be missed?

“Mommy?”

She turned and looked at Franny, the Barbie doll forgotten for the moment. “¿Que?”

“What’s that?” Her stubby finger pointed at the sky, even now dissipating into twilight.

Nada,” she said quietly. “Nothing, sweetie. It’s just a wisp of smoke.”

Wisp Part Four: Wash

This is the fourth part of the story Wisp. The parts in order are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. The links will open in a new window. This story contains references to sexual acts. As always, feedback is welcome.

Wash

Isaiah Washington, Wash to his friends, Father Washington to his congregation, stood in the small, darkened apartment, listening to the sounds of the city five stories below. Rap rhythms floated up from the street, from a radio or from the teenagers who regularly gathered around the lit trash can for warmth, he couldn’t tell. Somewhere tires screeched. Farther off and then nearer, sirens wailed, their whee-ooo-whee-ooo bouncing off the crowded buildings. Closed-off buildings, closed-off lives.

It didn’t escape him that this was his real congregation, here on the cusp of the Capitol Hill district. Mere blocks to the east, high-rises housed the original young-urbans, lawyers, bankers, paper handlers, those who transferred virtual money from one virtual account to another. And mere blocks to his west were the crumbling buildings that some of those young-urbans owned, rat holes that sheltered homeless teens, amputeed vets, drug addicts with their needle-punctured arms scabbed or scarred over.

He knew that one in twenty of the men on that west side would end up in prison, thus beginning a seemingly unbreakable cycle of recidivism. What happened to “paying one’s debt to society”? It was nonexistent, at least for the west side. That drug deal, the oh-so-easy exchange of money for a small baggie of heaven, became hard to resist when the baby’s screaming because she’s hungry and Mother Hubbard’s cupboard is bare.

It affected the women as well. He had more than one young woman — girls, really — in his congregation who stripped for a living, sometimes offering more so-called intimacy for extra cash. He heard their desperation in the close, stifling air of the confessional. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two days, five weeks, eleven months, twenty years since my last confession. “He offered me an extra fifty dollars if I gave him oral sex, Father”; “He said he would pay extra for me and another dancer to have sex while he watched”; “He hit me, but I wouldn’t let him hit me in the face”; “I don’t know what to do, Father. I’m losing money, because I’m too old,” — and that from a twenty year old. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee.

It would be nice to think that east of the divider he called his apartment were happier dwellings, richer lives. But he would be deceiving himself. He saw the small deaths there as well, alcoholic mothers, sexually abusive fathers, parents who drove themselves to early graves as they drove their children to football practice, basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, tennis; piano lessons, guitar, trombone, Spanish, French, German. It was a never-ending battle to get their children into the best preschools, only the first step in the long journey to the Ivy League. And that journey was riddled with its own drugs. Very often their fathers did lines of cocaine at office parties, ambition snorted with each gram. The mothers, on the other hand, did Prozac, Wellbutrin, St. John’s Wort, Paxil, Remeron, Celexa, Luvox, Lexapro, Zoloft. Their children did the designer drugs such as Ecstasy and other methamphetamines, drugs that the west side kids couldn’t afford to use, but could afford to sell. And there was always the ubiquitous Ritalin.

Even an intact family, such as Scott and Laurie Webber, had unbearable suffering. Their seeming functionality in a world of dysfunction had not protected them. He had a score of them in his congregation — not ones that Nietzsche would have termed “the boggled and the botched,” but boggled and botched nonetheless. Cancer, divorce, joblessness, depression, restlessness, herniated disks, adultery, abandonment, emphysema, muscular sclerosis, diabetes — the list was as long as were the drug names to chase the world of shadows away. Blessed be the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.

Wash sighed and turned away from the window. His gaze fell on the kitchen table. The cup of coffee, now cold and with grounds no doubt settled at the bottom, sat on the newspaper, still unread but now cup-stained from when he had been called to the hospital. Duty called as surely as it did any doctor. After he had sat with the Webbers, he had visited the old woman. Bitter woman, he thought now, as bitter as the coffee he threw down the sink. He had, though, been able to help somewhat. He had taken the paperwork to the Henry and Green Crematorium, the same mortuary he had arranged for baby Grace. Two bookended lives, he thought. The small baby, so full of unmet possibilities, and the old woman, empty of everything, even now of breath.

He decided against perusing the paper. It would only be more of the same, more death, more hatred, more war, more suffering.

Breathe, man, just breathe.

Television? More of the same. If not suffering, then inanities.

Like an alcoholic man trying to break a habit who returns to it with even greater devotion, he picked up his rosary. The beads had been worn smooth by the countless hours of prayer by his mother, her callused hands imbuing the wood with oil even as each decade prayed imbued her spirit with the grace of the Son and the Holy Mother. He remembered her teaching him the rosary, and the feeling of warmth from her hands as they guided his small fingers over each bead. Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. He had squirmed, anxious to be outside playing stickball, playing street hockey, playing anything, not understanding until much later the sacredness of the moment, not only between the supplicant and his God, but also between an only son and his mother.

He had been her fifth child and her only son, and he had never thought to ask why they all had different fathers, except for Teena and Tyra. His two oldest sisters were older than him by thirteen years and had been the product of his teenaged mother’s elopement. Their father had lasted only until his young bride turned twenty, and then he had left while getting a pack of cigarettes. Queenie had come next, a lighter skinned daughter whose father was never mentioned. It was assumed by all that she had been immaculately conceived. Tyra, though, had told him when he was seven that his mother — his mother! — had been lonely and a little drunk and the good-looking white boy at the bar had swept her off her feet and into his bed. He was gone the next morning, although he had left a twenty on the dresser.

Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.

Therise came next. Her father, whom everyone called Uncle Jim, still came by a couple of times a year. He always brought Therise a toy, sometimes a frilly dress, once a little puppy that widdled over everything until his mother gave it to the grocer in exchange for a bottle of Children’s Tylenol. When Uncle Jim came to visit, he usually brought Wash something as well. He bought Wash his first copy of Nicholas Nickleby; even now, decades and many editions later, it remained his favorite book. He couldn’t imagine the poor streets of London, but he didn’t have to imagine his own poverty. He saw all around him, as Dickens must have, the poor, the orphaned, the abandoned, and the abused, and he knew because he read it that even the poor have a place of belonging, a love beyond circumstance. The book showed him that words could create worlds beyond this one, and more importantly, beyond the easy school primers. It gave him a love of learning that never abandoned him.

It might have bothered him to have been raised by his mother, never knowing his father, if he had attended the white school a mere mile away. There, most schoolchildren lived with mother and father and knew grandparents who came to visit on weekends. At his school, no one enjoyed such luxury. Mother, aunts, grandmothers, older sisters, occasionally a grandfather. It was a world ruled by women.

It was only natural then for him to gravitate to Regina, the Queen of Heaven, to hear the prayer Salve Regina echo more in the depths of his soul than in the chambers of his ears. It had been his favorite prayer as a child, and he remembered the smell of candles and incense as he had lit a candle and prayed, “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our hope. To thee we cry, poor banished children of Eve.” When he was ten, he tried telling a boy in school that he also was a banished child of Eve. He got punched in the stomach for his efforts and from that moment kept his love of the Mother Mary to himself and to his Christ our Lord. Dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.

He remembered as a teenager trying unsuccessfully to correlate the dates of Therise’s birthday and his own with the date his mother “found religion.” Queenie told him that the crucifix with its sad-visaged savior had gone on the wall the year before Therise’s birth, three years before his. But how could that be? How could the woman who taught him to pray Ave Maria, gratia plena, the woman who slapped his cheek so hard his head rocked when he muttered “goddamn” under his breath, how could she have had sex with someone without being married?

He had carried that idealism with him to the seminary, where he had been destined since the moment of his birth. It was many months before he suspected that Uncle Jim might be his father as well as Therise’s, and many more years before he could understand his mother’s normal longings for simple companionship, and years before he could begin to comprehend in the smallest way the grace that was offered by the blessed pierced Hand to all those poor banished children of Eve. Sed libera nos a malo. Amen.

That comprehension led him to offer grace to whomever asked. He couldn’t endure his evangelical counterparts who, with all their talk of freedom in Christ and Bible studies and fellowship groups, placed a heavier burden on the children of Eve than ever the Catholic Church had done. They couldn’t understand how he could let prostitutes and homosexuals in his doors, and he couldn’t understand how they could not. The chasm seemed uncrossable.

And yet, Scott and Laurie Webber had come to him, as were others who had become disillusioned with a religion contained in a plain brown wrapper. They wanted stained glass and holy water and candles. They wanted beauty and tradition and transcendence. They wanted Mystery.

He contemplated the Sorrowful Mystery, Our Lord’s prayer in the Garden only hours before His trial and crucifixion. Our Lord was abandoned by the Father. Now there was a mystery! Did Scott and Laurie feel abandoned, now that their prayers had been proven fruitless and their child lay cold in the mortuary? If there was anything that gave lie to faith it was that building, stone cold and unyielding, its smokestack silent during the day but belching out the remnants and illusions of life at night where none could see, its cemeteries filled with flowers that had outlived the person in the ground, graves covered with fake grass.

Were Scott and Laurie taking comfort in Mystery tonight? He doubted it.

And yet, he was their priest. He stood as representative between the all-too-solid and the Mystery. He felt his inadequacy. He rubbed the beads between his fingers. O my Jesus, forgive us our sins.

He felt his knee cramping up, its complaint at the long hours of prayer. He kissed the crucifix, said one last Our Father, and finished with, “Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.”

He stood and returned to the window. Sirens still wailed, rap rhythms still punctuated the night, tires screeched, drugs deals were begun and concluded, loneliness was allayed by love bought and sold. If his prayers had had any effect, it wasn’t in the streets below, the streets over which he kept his vigil, over which he wept as had Jesus over Jerusalem.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Pray for us sinners. Now. Pray for us sinners. Now now now and at the hour of our death.

Mortis nostrae.

Our death.

* * *

Wisp Part Three: Frank

This is the third part of the story Wisp. The parts in order are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. The links will open in a new window. This story contains extreme language, graphic sexuality, disturbing behavior. As always, feedback is welcome.

Frank

Frank had worked at the crematorium for three years. The work wasn’t difficult, and it allowed him plenty of time to study. And perhaps most importantly, it meant he was alone. He didn’t have to endure the taunts from the other boys — football player sized — in the locker room. He didn’t have to be the target of unwanted food in the cafeteria or of balls in the gym. He didn’t have to hear the derision and snickers as he went by, particularly from her. He couldn’t ever be sure what she said, but he had no doubt that she was talking about him, whispering behind her hand to her ultra-blonde, megatanned friends.

And he wanted her. She was a goddess floating through the halls, flipping a sleek lock of hair out of her way as she brought her phone to her ear, her pastel pink lips pouting in some cellular flirtation, and he wondered not for the first time what those lips could do to him.

That was why it had seemed so opportune, so goddamned fortuitous, when she had landed on the slab in the Henry and Green Mortuary and Crematorium.

She had been in a car accident. Tad, her boyfriend of the week, had been drunk and had bounced across a grass median to say hello to the cars on the other side. It wasn’t a friendly meeting. Both had been killed.

Frank was sorry that Tad’s lifeless body had been taken to another funeral home. Tad had been the one in the locker room to lead the jeers, calling Frank “stick dick.” Frank would have liked to pull the sheet down to reveal Tad’s shriveled and ultimately useless penis. Then he would have flicked it with his thumb and forefinger. Not such a big dick now, is it?

But she was here, and that was enough.

No one was around when his shift started; there never was. All he had to do was babysit the bodies and wait for three o’clock in the morning on Tuesdays and Fridays. That was when he took the coffins and put them in the furnace for cremation. It couldn’t be done during the day. No, no, no. As Mr. Henry had patiently explained to him, “We treat all our customers, the living and the dead, with dignity and respect. That means we don’t burn them during the day. The smoke would rise from the smoke stacks and cause distress. No, no, no,” he had said in his whispery quiet, little girl lisp, “We don’t want to cause distress.”

The stupid little prick. Did he have any idea the amount of distress they had caused him? Of course not. He cared nothing for those whose blood hadn’t pooled into lividity. All Mr. Henry’s compassion, all his fussy, prissy attention — his hands fluttering over the bodies like plump birds — was given to those who had passed beyond all caring. What did soulless flesh care what was done to it? Did Lt. Col. Daniel Anderson, 89, heart attack, career army, care that he and Willie had stuck a flag in his dick and saluted it every time they passed by until his burial? No. Did Mrs. Lillian Barton, 72, lung cancer, substitute teacher, care that he and Willie had drawn arched eye brows over her nipples, giving her chest a look of surprise that she would carry into eternity? No.

But Mr. Henry had cared. Or would if he found out. He had fired Willie a month ago for something so heinous that he couldn’t even speak of it to Frank and the other employees. Frank found out later that Willie had sold the rendered fat — what Frank’s mother had called “drippings” — to a paramilitary group who was making its own soap. Frank didn’t see what the harm was. It was just fat. Did Mr. Dean Bradbury, 54, prostate cancer, accountant, care that he was now softening the skin of a group of second amendment crazies? No.

And would Miss Kelli Crawford, 20, internal bleeding, student, care if he touched her breast? No.

And that first night, that was all it had been. He had gone trembling into the room, starting at each noise. Others might be afraid of the dead bodies collected here; he was more afraid of the living.

She lay in the middle of the room, a white sheet covering but not concealing the breasts that jutted toward the ceiling like two perfect upended ice cream cones. Frank knew she was naked beneath the sheet. Tomorrow, the cosmetician would work on her face, hiding any bruises that remained, making her look as lifelike as she had looked pre-accident. She would remain naked, though, until the morning of the viewing when Mr. Henry would clothe her in the dress her mother had picked out.

He grasped the edge of the sheet and pulled it toward him. It slipped off her as though she were a smooth piece of glass. He gazed upon her, the object of his lust for the last six years, since freshman year in high school.

Her tanned skin, already losing its rich color, was flawless with the exception of a few scattered freckles on her shoulders and across her chest. Tan lines, though, revealed how white her skin was, as white as milk and as creamy as butter. Against the whiteness, her pink nipples rose. His mouth went dry at the thought of biting one, rolling it between his lips, flicking it with his tongue. It was hard to imagine that she wouldn’t respond with her back arched or a moan escaping her throat.

His gaze continued down over the fine fuzz of her tight stomach and the deeply dimpled navel. He lightly touched that depression and felt himself grow hard. Her skin was cool, and though she was firm, it felt in some ways like bread dough. His pants felt too tight, the material rubbing uncomfortably against his penis. He left his finger in her navel and with his other hand unzipped his jeans.

Then he let himself look at her pubic region. It had inflamed his imagination during football games as he watched from the stands as she flashed her panties in that legitimized pornography called cheerleading. For one second, he wished she were in her uniform so that he could lift her skirt. Her pubic hair was darker than the super-blonde hair on her head, but it looked just as silky. It wouldn’t take much pressure — much less than when she was alive — to spread her legs just a little to see the secret place the hair concealed.

He took in a shuddering breath. Breathe, he told himself. Just breathe. She was the first live woman he had ever seen. Well, except she wasn’t alive. But she wasn’t a slick and glossy photo, covered with a thousand desperate fingerprints.

He reached out and placed his hand over her breast. Don’t, Frank, he imagined her saying as she struggled away from his hand. He gripped her breast tighter. “It’s my turn, bitch,” he whispered. He came as soon as he touched his penis.

He left her that way, uncovered and humiliated with his semen trickling down her side, while he drove home, grabbed his digital camera, and drove back.

He took five pictures of her from different angles, but he didn’t touch her again except to clean his dried come from her skin and the shiny metal table. He spent the next day masturbating over the pictures after he uploaded them onto his computer, remembering the feel of her breast and, surprisingly, the smell of the chemicals in the room.

Two nights later, the last night she would be in the mortuary, he fully consummated their relationship. He had ignored the pictures all day so that he would be ready for her. He slipped his pants off so they wouldn’t leave any marks on her body. He removed the sheet and climbed on top of her. He whispered, “I’m going to fuck you, and there isn’t anything you can do about it,” into her soft, whitish flesh. The thought and the sound of his voice brought on a rush of blood so intense that for a moment he couldn’t see, and when he came, the ejaculate surprising and sticky between his warm thighs and her much cooler ones, the release of pressure on his testicles pained him.

He waited an hour and then attempted it again. “Try making fun of me now,” he said out loud. “Can’t do it, can you?” He enjoyed the feeling of pumping himself inside her, and his ejaculation was strong and bittersweet. There would never be another as good as her.

He cleaned her up but only minimally. He liked the thought of his come remaining inside her until she had decayed into dust.

There had been a few since her. His next had been a 40-year-old mother of two who had died from a botched liposuction. Her flesh wasn’t firm as Kelli’s had been, but it was cold, and that was enough. He had enjoyed its pillowy-ness. She in some ways reminded him of his mother, and that added to his excitement as he brutalized her. Once again, he left his ejaculate inside her, and this became his ritual. On the first night, he would take pictures — and the five pictures became ten, thirty, two disks, three. He would take them from different angles and position the body. He liked the control he had over them, these women who said no. Well, they couldn’t say no now. The next day he would upload the pictures and masturbate over them. That night he would have sex with the woman several times. The oldest woman he had been with was sixty-four; the youngest was eighteen. It got so that even the smell of the chemicals in the prep room could give him a hard-on. He liked to think that he had inseminated the entire cemetery.

His last woman, the woman Mr. Henry caught him with, was young, about nineteen. She had o.d.’d on ecstasy. She reminded him of Kelli, and that caused him to become sloppy. He had four dozen pictures of her, completely submissive to him; she would do whatever he wanted.

But he wasn’t scheduled to work that night. When he found a few moments to spare, he took advantage of it. On the rare occasion that that happened, when he had been scheduled in the afternoon instead of the night shift, he generally found a few minutes to spend with the corpse. He would turn the table around so that he could lie on top of the woman and still see the door. He wouldn’t undress on those occasions but would keep himself ready to spring away from the body if he saw someone approaching the door.
But this one reminded him of Kelli. The need to recreate his first experience outweighed every risk.

He was on top of her, his penis rock hard, when he heard the door swing open behind him.

“Get off that woman!” Mr. Henry’s girlish voice bounced off the tiled walls.

But Frank was beyond caring. It was Kelli underneath him, receiving his thrusts. He threw a snarl over his shoulder to Mr. Henry and grabbed the girl’s breast. He saw Mr. Henry advance upon him, the janitor Carl close behind.

He wanted to come before they pulled him off, but the distraction was too much for him. He could feel his penis wilting, withering within the woman. He tried to summon up images again of Kelli and of his domination of her, but it was no use. He slid out of her at the same moment that Carl grabbed his shoulder and wrenched him away.

He fell to the floor, landing on his backside, his chest heaving as he glared at the two men. Mr. Henry’s hand shook as he pointed a finger at him. “Clean out your things from your desk, and then come to my office.”

Mr. Henry fled the prep room then as though phantoms would pursue him.

Carl, whose brain was as wooly as his chest, watched Mr. Henry and then turned back to Frank. He unzipped and unfastened his pants and removed his penis. It was long and thick, even uncut, even soft. Frank’s illusion of power, the one he had so carefully created with each successive woman, shriveled.

“You don’t have to settle for dead ones when you have one of these,” Carl said, hefting his penis. He zipped up then, careful not to catch his bigness, his very munificence, in the teeth of the zipper. He snickered once and left.

The derisive sound followed Frank as he dressed, a ghostly presence he could never exorcise.

Mr. Henry sat behind his mammoth desk when he entered. The desk had been cleared of all items except one. Frank’s final paycheck floated in the middle like an iceberg.

Frank strode over, trying to keep the tatters of his illusion close by. He glanced at the check. It looked exact, to the penny. No bonus, no buy off for his silence, no severance package. The signature looked as though it had been written with a shaky hand.

“I have reported your behavior to the MFHA.”

Frank knew that with his name turned in to the Mortuary and Funeral Home Association, he would never be able to get a job in another mortuary.

“I have considered whether to turn you over to the police or not. Your actions are not only objectionable but also illegal. I have decided, however, not to press the matter. It would cause undue distress to our clientele. If, however, I hear that you are working at another mortuary or crematorium, I will take action. Be assured of that, Mr. Lester.”

He spun around in his chair to look out at the reflecting pond in the courtyard. Frank burned to say something. He wanted to walk around the massive desk to the small man on the other side and throttle him as though he were a chicken meant for Sunday dinner. He wanted to strip him and make fun of his penis size. He wanted to watch and laugh when he couldn’t perform with a woman. He would show him the meaning of distress.

He did none of these things, however. He crumpled his check, shoved it into his back pocket and left.

On his way out, he saw the two coffins waiting for Tuesday’s early morning burning. The old woman and the baby girl. They sat on the conveyor belt that led to the furnace. Like bridesmaids at the processional, they waited for the main event.

I’ll show the little prick the meaning of distress, he thought and flipped the switch. The belt was slow, but he knew it wouldn’t be caught in time. The furnace door opened, its roaring womb eager to accept his final bequest. He watched the coffins descend into the flames.

He left the building and looked up at the smoke stack. It wouldn’t be long before smoke would billow from it into the late afternoon sky. He smiled.

* * *

Wisp Part Two: Pearl

This is the second part of the story Wisp. The parts in order are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. To read Part One: Grace, click here. It will open in a new window. This story contains some mild language and a couple mentions of sexuality. As always, feedback is welcome.

                                                                          Pearl

“Breathe, just breathe.” The man’s voice broke through the wavy glass that seemed to surround Pearl. No, not glass. Plastic, over her mouth and nose. Forced oxygen. Yes, now she remembered. She had felt herself losing her balance in her kitchen. She had pressed the medi-alert button that hung around her neck — “Help at the Touch of a Finger!” — before falling and cracking her head on the sink. Stupid, really.

She gripped the edge of the stretcher with one hand and reached up to feel the lump on her forehead with the other. Rough gauze grazed her fingertips.

“You’re okay now, Mrs. Alexander. We’re just going to take you to the hospital, get you checked out.”

She nodded as much as the apparatus and stretcher would allow. She was glad it wasn’t more; her head ached when she moved it, and nausea gripped her stomach and bowels.

It was the damn medication. If she took it, then she did nothing but throw up. If she didn’t take it, then her gait became stiff; falling was a foregone conclusion.

They bumped her into the back of the ambulance — did they have to be so damn rough? —  and it was only when they were driving off that she had a chance to wonder if she had on clean underwear and if she had left the patio door open or not.

The stove was off, of that she was certain; she hadn’t yet filled the kettle with water. She had, however, removed the lemons from the refrigerator. She had cut one into perfect, circular, thin slices and put them in a Tupperware bowl. They would go into the punch bowl for the weekly bridge game. The other lemon she had cut into wedges for tea. It was then she remembered that she hadn’t yet put the kettle on. The smart thing to do would have been to start the kettle first, then cut the lemon while waiting for the water to boil. But she had never been clever. She was nothing but a stupid old woman. The wedges, eight equal parts, were still sitting on the counter, where they would dry out, the pulp becoming whitish and flaky, the skin growing leathery, and the juice evaporating. No matter how much she would squeeze it, it would remain stubbornly dry, shriveled.

She closed her eyes. She just wanted to sleep for a bit, forget about lemons.

“Are you still with us, Mrs. Alexander?”

Of course she was. What did the jackass think? “I’m so tired,” she whimpered.

“We’re almost there. Is there someone you want us to call?”

“My daughter. Her number is in my purse.” Did she have her purse? Probably not. They wouldn’t have thought to get it. That meant she didn’t have her keys either. Did they lock the door of the apartment? A colored family had just moved in down the hall. She would be damned lucky if she had anything left in her apartment when she got back. She made a mental note of the things to check for when she returned: the wall safe, her jewelry, the crystal.

“I can tell you the number,” she said. She waited for the paramedic to poise his pencil. “Her name is Kay.” She watched him jot it down, bold large strokes, the number following the colon that followed the name.

Darkness closed in over her, and although she could hear the paramedic ask if she was okay, she didn’t answer. Let him wonder if she had died or not.

When her eyes fluttered open again, Eddie, her youngest son, was leaning over her. She turned her head and saw Kay sitting in the visitor’s chair, talking on a cell phone.

“Mom? Are you okay?”

Her nostrils flared as Eddie’s breath reached her, his words riding the fumes of Jack Daniels as though it were an amusement ride gone beserk. His clothes held the smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke. A cobweb, thick and dusty, clung to his hair. He must have been crawling in a cellar, rewiring it. How he hadn’t yet burned down someone’s house, she would never know, because he was a drunk, plain and simple. “Did you come from work?” she asked.

“Yeah. Kay called and said you had had an accident.”

Kay snapped her cell phone shut. She took a drink from her water bottle, expensive and lemon-flavored, and came over to the bed. “Del is on his way.”

Irritation coiled in her mind. She hadn’t wanted all of them crowding around her. She had wanted only Kay.

“You weren’t working with Del?” she asked Eddie.

“No. He was working in the office today.”

“Did you ask him about a raise?”

“He’s not going to give me a raise, Mom. He’s got too much other stuff to spend his money on. He just keeps telling me that when I get licensed, he’ll give me more money.”

“Well, I don’t know why he’s waiting,” she snapped.

“Because he doesn’t think I do a good enough job. Even though I do all the work.”

She agreed with him even though she knew this wasn’t true, and she suspected that Del carried a huge insurance policy on his alcoholic brother, but it still annoyed her. Del was her oldest child, the product of a young marriage. Her parents had finally forced her to leave her husband when he had been arrested for exposing himself to a group of schoolchildren. The question of whether he had ever sexually abused school-aged Del or not lodged in her mind, a cramp in the soft tissue. Perhaps that would explain why Del was . . . well, the way he was. It didn’t matter that he owned his own business or had his own family. It didn’t matter that he had given Eddie a job when no one else would. It didn’t matter, because she knew how wrong Del was and how she should never have had him. She should have given him up for adoption when she left his father. Pearl’s mother, the old, bitter bitch, had tried to talk her into doing just that. It wasn’t love that made her keep him, though; it was fear of loneliness.

“How did court go?” she asked.

Eddie shrugged, and Pearl could almost see the lie forming. “The judge didn’t like me. He said I’d been drinking.”

“Had you?” Kay asked.

“Shut up!” he threw over his shoulder to his younger sister. “He said he’d give me three weeks to comply with the court order.”

“Well, why are you still drinking then?”

He whipped around on her, the anger that always raged near the surface exploding. “Why don’t you mind your own business?”

Her lip curled, but she simply held up her hand in dismissal and shook her head. Then she turned all that withering contemptuousness on Pearl.

“The doctor said you stopped taking your medication, Pearl,” Kay said. “Why would you do that?”

Pearl hated the fact that her daughter called her by her first name. It was as though she had become Kay’s child, as though Kay wanted to deny the thirty-five-year relationship between them. “Because it was making me so sick. I kept throwing up. If I throw up one more time, I’m just going to slit my throat.”

“The doctor said you also stopped your physical therapy.”

Pearl knew it had been a mistake to name Kay as a guardian, able to know all her medical and financial decisions, but the truth was, she just wasn’t capable of doing it all herself any more. Her brain was becoming a stranger, vaguely familiar, somewhat threatening. “It wasn’t helping.”

“The last time I talked with you, you said it was.”

“Well, it was, but I just didn’t want to go. The therapist is too rough. And no one will take me.”

“But it was helping you walk. Are you still going to your Parkinson’s group?”

What had she told Kay about that group? She didn’t remember. “The last time I went, that woman who mumbles talked the entire time. I couldn’t understand a word she said, the fool. It was a complete waste of two hours.”

“Kay, leave her alone,” Eddie said. “She doesn’t need you badgering her.”

“Apparently, someone needs to. And my god! How much do you drink on the job?”

“Leave me alone!”

Stop bickering! Pearl wanted to say. It made her head hurt, made her feel that they weren’t paying enough attention to her. After all, she was the one in the hospital.

“Eddie, why don’t you go back to work? I don’t need you both here.” It was always best when she could deal with her children one-on-one. That way the attention wasn’t divided between her and someone else.

Eddie bent over the bed and kissed Pearl, who held her breath until he was away. “I’ll talk to the doctor and tell her to call me when you’re released. I’ll come and pick you up.”

Kay waited until he left and then pulled the chair closer to the bed. “He’s going to burn down someone’s house one of these days,” she said, echoing Pearl’s earlier sentiment. Why couldn’t Kay see that they always agreed?

“Del should have never hired him.”

Kay snorted, a particularly ugly sound. “Yes, because Eddie was so much better off sleeping in his car and never showering.”

“Del doesn’t treat him right. He never has.”

“Let’s not get into it right now. I need to talk to you about your will and where I can find all the papers.”

“Of course.” The truth was, she had been thinking quite a bit about her money and the disposition of her effects. “As far as I’m concerned, liquidate the entire estate. I want everything divided up between the two of you.”

“You mean the three of us.”

“No. Just the two of you — you and Eddie. The two of you are the ones I consider my real children. Del just caused me too much trouble when he was a teenager.”

Kay paused a moment before writing it down. Pearl could see her mind working out the details and how she would try to get around them when the time came. Let her try.

“Next, Eddie borrowed five thousand dollars from me and hasn’t paid it back. I want that amount subtracted from his share.” He had borrowed the money to enter rehab. What a waste that had been; she could still smell the fumes that lingered in the room.

“Hello?”

She looked over at the door. A colored priest, older than any of her children, even Del, had looked in.

“I heard you had just been admitted. I’m Father Washington. When I’m on call, I try to check in with everyone to see if they need anything?”

“No,” she said, unable and unwilling to keep the acerbic tone at bay.

“Pearl! Don’t be rude.”

“Well, I didn’t ask him to come.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” the priest said. “I’ll go.”

“Stay a moment, Father,” Kay said. “I need a witness to my mother’s wishes. I apologize for her rudeness.”

The priest nodded, an almost subservient move as he lingered at the foot of the bed, but Pearl wasn’t fooled. They always thought they were better than everyone else, all their talk of sin and of having to behave in a certain manner. She remembered her uncle and all of his religious talk, his pious posturings. Did he know that his son wouldn’t let her play with him and his friends unless she performed oral sex on each of them? Of course she did it; she wanted to play with the big kids. She remembered sneaking lemons off the trees in the fields and squeezing them into her mouth afterwards. It cut through the thick ejaculate that coated her throat and left her with a bitter taste in her mouth. The acidity eventually ate away the enamel on her teeth, and she had to have constant dental work; she had dentures fitted for her while she was only in her thirties.

She turned back to Kay. “Figure out what the interest would have been on five-thousand dollars and deduct that as well.”

Again, the hesitation on Kay’s part.

“I’m not a bank, Kay.” Kay wrote it down, but Pearl didn’t miss the slight glance toward the silent priest. He had that dusty look that older black men got, as though he had been walking down dirt roads instead of tiled hallways. “I want you to have those parts that were deducted from him.”

“What about charities?”

“No.”

“The Parkinson’s group has been very good to you.”

“No. None of them came to see me the last time I was in the hospital. And I went to Edith’s birthday party, and no one said anything to me. I was there for two hours, and none of them came over to talk to me.”

Kay finished writing and passed the pen to Pearl. She gripped the pen even though it was hard for her to do. Her signature held the telltale shake of the Parkinson’s victim. Kay took the pen and pad and passed it to the dusty-colored priest. Pearl watched him sign his name as witness, hating that he saw her shaky signature, as though that defined her, as though it made him better than her.

He left soon after, urging her to send for him if she needed anything at all. Damn priests, acting as though they cared about her.

Kay folded the paper and put it in her satchel. “I’ll go file these and then I’ll be back later to see how you are.”

“And take a check with you to the Henry and Green Crematorium. I want them paid off as soon as possible.”

“Do you want me to get you anything before I go?”

“Maybe a cup of tea.”

Kay went to find it and brought it back moments later. Th water was lukewarm, but Pearl placed the teabag in the cup and poured water over it. The tremor made her splash some over the side of the cup. She was so tired, and she could sense the blackness beyond waiting for her. Close now, so close. In the end, it was all she had ever really wanted. The blackness was all she had ever embraced.

She picked up the lemon wedge from the edge of the saucer. She licked it once, feeling the bite on her tongue and the pucker that had become as familiar to her as her own face.

As tightly as her palsied hands would let her, she squeezed the lemon into the cup.

* * *

 

Wisp Part One: Grace

The following is the first short story in the 5-part story “Wisp.” The parts are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. I think they are best read in that order. This first story does not contain any objectionable material. Feedback is welcome.

Wisp

On the day Mr. Henry fired Frank Lester, two bodies awaited cremation at the Henry and Green Mortuary and Crematorium: a baby girl and an old woman. They didn’t have anything to do with Frank, alive or dead. At least not before he shoved their coffins into the furnace as his last act. That the act was petty at best, criminal at worst, didn’t cross his mind. Only the need for revenge. The aptness of the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold” struck him as humorous given the body temperature of said bodies, and he snorted on his way out the door.

He didn’t wonder about the baby girl and the old woman, their fated demise at opposite ends of the spectrum. Their lives, the lives of the baby girl and the old woman, were meaningless now except as they intertwined in the greasy smoke curling from the obscene smokestack.

                                                                         Grace

Hee hee hee hoo. Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate on the focal point. Breathe through the contraction.

God had sucked the sunlight out of the sky the day Dr. Iverson had told Laurie and Scott Webber that something was wrong with the pregnancy. Everything turned gray and fuzzy around the edges, even Dr. Iverson’s compassionate face.

Laurie thought about his face now as it peered up at her from between her legs, the white sheet between them acting as a decorous — although fictional — shield. The wrinkles around the guileless blue eyes suggested trust while the wild white hair made him seem bemused. In fact, his entire appearance inspired faith and confidence from the reddish freckles scattered liberally and boyishly across his face and hands to his rumpled doctor’s greens. Even on that dark day, Laurie had put her trust in him. She didn’t just believe him, she believed in him, in the same way that Scott believed in God. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in God, she did with all her heart, but Dr. Iverson had been present in a way that God wasn’t. When she cried in his office, he held her hand. It was as simple, and maybe as complicated, as that.

He pulled the sheet back down and sighed. “You’re about halfway there, about five centimeters. It’s not too late to change your mind, you know.”

Scott brushed damp hair away from her forehead. “It’s up to you, honey.”

She shook her head, for a moment too consumed with grief to speak. She didn’t want drugs. Drugs could guarantee a lessening of the physical pain, but they couldn’t guarantee that she would retain full awareness during labor. If her baby girl was going to live for only a few moments, she didn’t want to miss any of them.

“Rest between the contractions, then, and make sure to do your breathing exercises during the contractions. I’m going to check quickly on a couple of other patients, and I’ll be right back.”

He smiled, handed the chart to the nurse, and left. The nurse, squarish and solid, who looked as though she had seen the births of hundreds of babies, as though she had caught hundreds of babies with her squarish, blunt hands, helped Laurie get her feet out of the stirrups. She straightened the sheet and adjusted the fetal monitor over the belly. In the quiet of the room, the sounds of the distressed heart could be heard clearly.

“Don’t you worry,” she said. “I’ve seen God do amazing things.” She patted Laurie on the knee and turned a pitying smile on Scott before leaving the room.

“It’s the fetus’s heart,” Dr. Iverson had said that day. A large desk, worn at the corners and in need of polishing, dominated the center of the doctor’s consultation office, but he wasn’t sitting behind it. He leaned against it, close to the couple in front of him. “It’s called a ventricular septal defect.”

Laurie squeezed Scott’s hand so hard that she could feel her heartbeat pounding next to his fingers. Breathe, she thought. Just breathe.

“That means there’s a hole in the septum, the wall that divides the two ventricles of the heart. It’s a very large hole — there’s probably more than one — which has caused the left side of the heart to not develop. Because it hasn’t developed, the right side is enlarged. Blood is leaking from the left side to the right, which means poor circulation throughout the rest of the body.”

She let go of Scott’s hand and rested it on her stomach. She could feel the flutter of the baby there. They knew it was a girl but hadn’t picked a name yet. Scott wanted to name her Julie, after a sister of his who had died when she was a teenager. She wanted Hannah, after Hannah in the Bible. Hannah had done everything possible to have a child. Her fervent prayers, and indeed her bargaining with God, had paid off finally. There was no way, she thought, that she would be able to give up her first born to God, as Hannah had done. Now it seemed she would have no choice, no say in the matter. Damn you, God, god damn you.

“What was that sound we heard during the examination? It sounded like a heart murmur,” Scott said.

“That’s the sound of the blood rushing across the hole. Because the blood is leaking,” Dr. Iverson’s voice went relentlessly on, “the lungs are filling with fluid. Right now, of course, the baby is breathing through you, but because of the fluid, the lungs can’t develop.”

“Is she in pain right now?” She couldn’t bear the thought, but she had to know.

“She’s not in pain, but she’s in distress.”

She rubbed the baby, pushing gently here and there, feeling her respond with a gentle kick, Laurie’s favorite game with her. She had never wanted anything in life other than to be a mother. Laurie’s mother, a mid-level advertising exec who had been one of the first women at the executive level in the company, encouraged Laurie to be whatever she wanted to be. There were no more societal restraints on women. She could be a judge or a politician or a CEO. But all Laurie wanted was to be a mother, to have her own children and home, to get involved in church programs and the PTA, to attend all of her children’s soccer games, ballet recitals, and piano lessons. Her mother had not been happy. “But you can be anything,” she had said, her voice plaintive and mortified. “I know,” Laurie had replied with all the conviction her sixteen years could muster, “and this is what I want.” Apparently, women’s lib didn’t apply to all women.

Hee hee hee hoo. Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate on the focal point. Breathe through the contraction. The day nurse went on a lunch break but stayed at the nurse’s station. Laurie could hear an afternoon news program on the television. They were calling a household with the prefix “724” to say the key word and win cash. Scott placed an ice chip between her cracked lips, but the truth was, she just wanted him to go away. She loved him, but every time she looked at him, she was reminded that their child was going to die and that she hadn’t had much say in the matter.

She had felt it even back then, that her concerns, opinions, beliefs, heartbreak didn’t matter. “What do you mean by ‘distress’?” she had asked.

Scott briefly shook his head and intruded on the end of her words. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Smaller holes tend to heal over time. This one won’t.”

That was when she had started to cry, and Dr. Iverson took her hand. Warm, dry, and wrinkled, his hand comforted her.

“Because of the congestive heart failure, I can prescribe medications such as digitalis to control the symptoms. However, once the baby is born, it won’t do any good.”

“What about surgery?”

“We can attempt surgical closure of the defect with the use of a Gore-tex patch. It would be a large patch, and might not cover all the holes. If we did surgery, I would recommend a C-section as soon as the fetus is able to sustain life outside the womb, possibly at 30 to 32 weeks.”

“What would the chances be?”

Laurie hated the way the two men talked back and forth as though they were discussing stock options and not a human life. She withdrew her hand from Dr. Iverson’s and placed it back on the baby. I’m here, little one. You are safe with me, my baby girl.

“I’ll be honest with you. The prognosis isn’t good. We would take the baby into surgery immediately, and she would stay in NICU for several months. The longest she might live is six months, and most, if not all, of that time would be spent in the hospital.”

“Could I still hold her?” Laurie asked.

“No. She would be in an incubation unit. It would be too risky to have her pick up an infection. She simply wouldn’t be able to fight it off.”

Hee hee hee hoo. Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate on the focal point. Breathe through the contraction. “Another one already?” Scott asked. She simply nodded.

They discussed it long into the night. What good would it do to have the surgery, only to have her die soon after?

Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate. Breathe through the contraction.

It would be better, they at last decided, to bring her home and let her die at home, surrounded by the people who loved her, in her mother’s arms.

Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate. Breathe.

Dr. Iverson lifted the sheet. When had he come back in? “You’re doing great, Laurie. During the next contraction, I want you to bear down. Push as hard as you can.”

The next hour became a blur in her mind as she pushed with every contraction and fell asleep between them. Then she pushed and felt the baby slide out of her as though all her hopes, dreams, love, and life itself were pouring out in that single rush of fluid, as though something vital had been lost.

She heard her baby’s cry, small and weak, before she fell asleep. She was awake in seconds, sorrow at losing those few seconds nibbling at her. Scott brushed her hair away from her forehead and kissed her. “Father Washington is on his way.”

She nodded mutely and held her arms out for her baby girl. Dr. Iverson handed the white-wrapped bundle into her arms, and Laurie looked at her daughter. Reddish-brown hair, as fine as the cotton that floated by the windows in the summer, capped her perfectly formed head. Pale lashes brushed the blue-tinted cheeks. In the quietus of the room — the beeping of the fetal monitor stilled, the whirring of futile machines silent — Laurie could hear the labored breathing and the little hitch in the breath as air tried to pass through blood-filled lungs.

“When you go to God, little one,” she whispered in the down of her hair, “know that you were loved and wanted.” Her own breath hitched as air tried to pass through sorrow. She kissed the top of her head, wanting for the moment to go on into eternity.

Scott held her for a moment, whispering his own words into her being, and then he handed her back to Laurie, turning his back on them as sobs wracked his body.

Father Washington came in, somber, godly, resplendent in baptismal robes. He embraced Scott first, letting him cry against his shoulder while his huge black hands patted his back. When he turned to Laurie, he cupped her chin in his hand, a true father to this woman who felt so much like a little girl. She wanted to ask why but trusted instead in the warmth of his old and grieving eyes, filled with love and sorrow but also an unearthly calm.

He took the baby and held her close. He uncovered her head in preparation of the baptism. “What is her name?” he asked, his normally sonorous voice muted and hushed as though this very room, sterile and dismal, had become the holy of holies.

Scott opened his mouth to reply, but Laurie rushed in, her determination and strength growing in the face of sudden adulthood. “Grace. Her name is Grace.”

Laurie listened as Father Washington poured the water over her head, In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, washing her clean of all human stain, making her like Eve on the day of her creation. Then came the oil crossing her forehead, In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, preparing her with these final rites to meet God.

The breathing became more labored, loud in this antiseptic cathedral. Father Washington draped a small crucifix over her head, kissed her, and handed her over to Laurie, who took her, held her close to her breast, whispered a last prayer in her ear, and handed her up to God.

In the hallway, strangely removed from holiness, two nurses argued about whether someone had really killed her lover on The Young and the Restless.

* * *