Mom lay in her coffin with her lips stretched back in a thin smile. Hair so dark, forehead so flat. Cindy came up and the first words out of my mouth were “She looks like a statue of a monkey,” and Cindy said “Have you finally lost your mind?” When Cindy left, I kissed Mom’s forehead. It took me a second to realize how cold it was. Not unpleasant. Just cold. But somehow the feel of her forehead was comforting to me.
The weather was awful. Snowy. Rainy. Blowy. Icy-cold and dark too early. It was Mom’s anger. She died in the early evening around 6:30 or so. She had a bunch of her friends over to play duplicate bridge. Tables were set up in the kitchen, living room, and den. The story is she had just won a hand. She and her partner were laughing. And Mom said: “I have a pain in my back.” Then she put her head down on the table. Some of the women claimed she said: “I think I’m having a heart attack.” She then apparently fell over onto the lap of the woman next to her, Dolores Barning. Her eyes rolled up in her head, according to Dolores.
And that was it. About 30 seconds, Dolores says. After EMS took her away, her friends called Dad and Cindy and David, and then Cindy called me, in Brooklyn.
Woke up the morning of the second day of the wake in the condo guest room, Marta sleeping gently beside me. Had just had a dream that Mom was an ape and other apes were dragging her into an open grave while still more apes waved palm fronds over them. The fronds gave off a brilliant, blinding white light—one of the apes was videotaping everything. As the creatures tossed her into her grave, Mom screamed and her eyes rolled back, just like Dolores said.
After breakfast we went to see the lawyers. David, Cindy, myself and Dad sat at a conference table with Diana, the angular blonde attorney, and a grey-haired CPA named Cheyenne. The estate comes to three million and change. Dad took exception to this and told Diana that Mom had a million in Amazon stock alone, but Cheyenne chimed in and said that actually it was “roughly” four hundred thousand. Dad kept insisting it was a million and then went on to portray Mom as a “sharp cookie.” During this exchange, Cindy wrote a note on her legal pad and showed it to me: “The client from hell.”
When we were done at the lawyers we got into Dad’s car and drove to the Kingsley Inn. We sat in a very dark banquette in the very dark and musty main room eating club sandwiches near a dreary man and an ugly woman having a desperate business lunch. When Dad went to the bathroom, I innocently (I thought) said I’d like to find out exactly how much Amazon stock there really is and Cindy said: “Why, so you can be a lot nicer to him if there’s extra dough?” David snickered at this, which pissed me off. Usually he is on my side in these matters.
After spending the better part of two days in the funeral home it began to feel as if we were hosting a genteel party in a large, old-fashioned living room. The smell of flowers was a bit heady and, yes, there was a dead body next to the fireplace, but aside from that it was rather pleasant. Even my ex-wife’s parents showed up—I hadn’t seen them in a decade or so. My last contact with them, Bill was fucking some nurse in a broom closet at the hospital where he practiced, while Karen chain-smoked in her kitchen and listened obsessively to a police scanner. But it all seemed good now and they were very kind to me, even hinting that my ex-wife’s current husband was a jerk, which was nice of them, considering what I had put their daughter through.
At one point as I talked to them I was leaning with one hand on the side of the coffin, my legs crossed at my ankles, my other hand in my pocket, and Cindy came up to me and said: “That is not a fucking banister.” Bill and Karen beat a retreat and I turned, ready to let Cindy have it, but then I remembered that Mom hated it when the kids fought in front of her.
I decided to tell Cindy the dream I had had that AM about the apes, but then realized how weird it would sound, so I just made up a dream on the spur of the moment. In this dream, Mom appeared in our apartment in Brooklyn and sat down next to me. She seemed all in all to be in pretty good shape and she said to me: “I am counting on you and your sister to take care of your father, whatever you do.”
Cindy widened her eyes and claimed she’d had the exact same dream. She has never been to our place in Brooklyn, but she described it pretty well. She said she had been sitting on the couch (futon, really) and Mom had appeared to her and said the same thing—you and your brother need to take care of your father. The only difference between Cindy’s (supposedly) real dream and my made-up one was that Cindy claimed that she told Mom: “Yeah, and like that’s going to happen.”
We watched our father across the crowded room, talking to people, gripping their hands and arms as they came up to him.
“Remember how glamorous they were?” Cindy asked.
I did. The parties were epic. Late one night when I was about 12 I looked out our upstairs window to see couples crawling out the front door on all fours, like scampering rats, spreading out across the lawn, skittering down the sidewalk, while my parents stood on the porch and pealed their laughter across the sleeping neighborhood. Then there were the trips to Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, when they left us, sometimes for weeks at a time, with a dope-smoking German au pair who would translate the Nazi commands for David and I in the “World at War” documentaries we liked to watch: “He is saying ‘March! Hurry up or I’ll shoot!’”
“The money ruined us,” I said to Cindy at the same time as she said: “God, I need a cigarette.” She found this exchange irritating and walked away, but the line about the money ruining us was standard in our family. My mother came from a poor neighborhood in Chicago and married my father young and when Cindy, David and I were little we really had nothing. My father sold insurance, my mother worked in a pre-school, and we lived in a tiny house. Mom was beautiful and tender, but with a cynical wit. There is a picture of us three kids sitting at her feet, aged six (Cindy), four (me), two (David) and we have our mouths open like little birds, staring up at her in delight.
But then my mother’s Great-Aunt Lucille, ninety years old, dropped dead in her kitchen in Chicago, holding a bowl of tomato soup in one hand and a box of saltines in the other. Aunt Lucille had worked as a clerk at Sears for almost half a century before retiring to her crumbling house in what had become a ghetto neighborhood. After she died, my mother, her only living relative, went to the house and was on her knees scrubbing the stain the tomato soup (presumably) had left when she noticed something glittering on the underside of the kitchen table. She peered closer. Aunt Lucille had taped Krugerrands in perfect rows across the bottom, dozens of them, like checkers on a checkerboard.
After that, the search began. Mom tore up the place. She found envelopes full of cash hidden in old clocks, diamond bracelets in shoes, bank books stuck in dusty tomes. All in all, there was nearly a million. No one knew where Lucille got it. A secret life of crime? But she was a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic. In any event, it all went to my mother.
The day after the funeral Dad and I went out to visit Mom’s grave for the first time. We drove into the cemetery along the same route the hearse took, over a pond and around the mausoleum. Mom is in Section 173 near a pine tree and a little rise of land. It’s a good spot. In the distance you can see tall suburban office buildings. You can also hear the hum of traffic, which is fine—Mom didn’t like it too rustic. The grave was covered with fresh dirt mounded into the mythical shape of a woman, with wide hips and conical breasts. I thought, wow, did the gravediggers do that as a tribute? It was unbelievable, insane, but then I realized it was probably just shaped by the rain. There was a bedraggled wreath lying between the dirt breasts with a silk ribbon that read: “Beloved.” Dad took an airline-size bottle of vodka that he had gotten somewhere and with ceremony poured it over the grave, which was a nice touch, since Mom was a functioning alcoholic. Then he began to weep and said in a choking voice: “We were drifting apart but in the last years we came together.” You could have fooled me, because the last time I talked with Mom she had referred to him as “that shithead.” Before we left, when he thought I wasn’t looking, he broke off the part of the ribbon that said “Beloved” and put it in his pocket.
I went back to the cemetery the next day when Dad was at Mass. Snuck out there without telling him. It was eight A.M. and very peaceful. It wasn’t raining and the air was thin and cold. I picked up some dirt from the grave and tossed it on the bedraggled wreath. I talked to Mom a little. I promised her that I would take care of David, who is clinically depressed and tends to get overlooked.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Mom. The last time I had spoken to her was a week before. She called and I didn’t call back right away and then she left a second, sharper message and I did call her back. She wanted to talk about how much I was paying for the rehearsal dinner and I am ashamed to say we got into a fight about it, since she wanted me to pay more and I wanted her to (mainly) foot the bill. She pointed out that I was thirty-nine years old, had a good job, and was on my second marriage and there wasn’t much I could say except that I would speak to Dad and that’s when she said: “See how far you get with that shithead.” She hung up on me and that was it for any two-way conversation we would ever have.
Dad drove me to Metro on Wednesday—Marta had gone back earlier for work. I was worried about him: he missed a turn and changed lanes once with someone right beside us and his face was all scrunched up and red. When he dropped me off he gave me the usual fifty-dollar bill handshake and the words: “Now I know why you have the name you have.” This was nice to hear—it meant he was proud of the way I had handled myself during the funeral—but since I am his namesake it was also typically self-referential. On the airplane, high above the grey turmoil, the sun blasted off the wing and right into my eyes. As I reached up to close the shade, I thought of the blinding light shooting from the apes’ palm fronds. It had been a terrible dream—a nightmare, really—and it was disturbing to believe it had come from inside me.
J.S. Cummins is the author of the novel The Snow Train. He lives in New Jersey.