Do you ever think about what people look like when they die? Not right after they die when they just look like they’re sleeping, but after, when they’ve been in the ground for a good while. When their skin has started a steady marching retreat away from everything else, making a hellish jack-o-lantern grin with teeth bared but there’s still hair everywhere, because that’s what they say happens: your hair keeps growing. And the eyes are sunken and turning to yellow jelly, only if the worms haven’t eaten them out already. The people don’t look like they’re sleeping anymore. Instead, their skin’s receded so much they look like they’re smirking quietly about something not so funny.
I think about it. I think about it a lot in the dead of night when everyone else has gone to bed, and the TV is finally turned off, and the only sound is the distant thunderstorm rumble of somebody’s snoring and the inexplicable creaking of the otherwise quiet house. As everyone else is off dreaming, I’m watching the lights from the highway crawl across my ceiling, thinking about what people look like when they die. And the thing that strikes me the most isn’t that they’re really and truly dead, never to walk or talk or be again, but that they all start to look the same. If you waited long enough and dug up a dozen graves you wouldn’t be able to tell your grandmother from your first grade teacher.
My father died down in the river, and just about now I’d say he’s looking like every other corpse in the graveyard. Just a sack of bones — the great pregnant pillowy look of his beer belly deflated. He was down there fishing drunk, right after getting laid off from the lumber mill. They said the owls were what shut the mill down but I never bought that for a second — though Daddy was quick enough to point fingers with the rest of them. Anyhow, he was down there drinking his sorrows away out of a cheap plastic bottle wrapped in brown paper with a couple of his buddies when he slipped on the muddy riverbank. I know for a fact that it was October when he died but whether or not the bank was muddy from the river or the rain I couldn’t say. I like to think it was raining, because there’s a certain poetry to that, but either way, he slipped, slid down the short bank until his feet landed in the icy water, and bumped his head on a rock. While his buddies were chortling about his clumsiness, they didn’t figure to check just how hard he’d bumped his head until they noticed that the river was dragging him into the current and he wasn’t doing a damn thing to stop it. By the time they had set down their beers and scrambled down to him, his body was being carried away by the river. He left behind a fresh smear of blood on the rock and his bottle still laying next to it.
I know I said that he was looking just about like all the other corpses but I couldn’t say for sure, because they never did find his body. For a man of his girth, the salvagers should have found him pinned against a rock in some rapid downstream. But they scoured the river all the way down to the falls and still found nothing. For all anyone knows, he’s pinned under the falls, steadily pummeled by the pounding water, or maybe he made it all the way down to the Pacific by now.
My daddy and I were never very close. I was just this big ol’ disappointment to him, being a girl and all. I wasn’t even a good tomboy or anything. He wanted someone to gut fish and deer and any other unfortunate creature that crossed his path. But I don’t know, because I think that maybe if he hadn’t been such a sot and had maybe asked me a time or two, I may have gone with him. Maybe. At any rate, my daddy was a disappointment to me too, because he wasn’t the loving, happy dad you saw in cereal commercials. Instead, he was a great monster of a man, balding and gold-toothed. He never just spoke; he roared. He spit and cursed and growled. The reek of alcohol seemed to seep out from his pores, but pretty soon he wasn’t reeking of it, even though he was drinking more than ever. The smell that came off him in waves was more like rot, like he was rotting from the inside out, every little bit of him tearing away from other bits and liquefying into a putrid mush. I guess that if the river hadn’t decided to wash him away, then his own body would have eaten him alive.
After a particularly long night of staring at the ceiling thinking, I sipped my coffee out on the deck just as the sun was peeking over the canyon. It wasn’t fitting to spend all night pining over the dead, even if they had been your daddy. Even though I was exhausted, and there was a clattering racket of robins and quails waking up, and the bitter coffee was already eating at my empty stomach, it was mornings like this that I loved best. The dark wasn’t there picking away at me and my run-away thoughts. Not another soul was up telling me what I could or couldn’t do. Not telling me that I talked too much or chewed too loudly or was just too much in the way all the time.
I had thought at first that things would get better after Daddy’s death. Like with him gone, this great black thunderhead of ill-will would just disappear downriver with him. Sad, isn’t it, that my first thoughts after he died were like that and not all filled up with sorrow? When he was still alive and drinking like a rundown dog, I used to dream that in some way or another he’d be gone from our lives. I didn’t care if he died, or the police took him away, or if he ran off with some tramp. Just that he was good and gone. I figured if he were gone, and it were just Momma and me, then we could both breath a little easier. Like it is when you leave the city and get that first little sip of country air and it’s just a little easier to breathe.
And instead of things getting better with Momma and me, things got worse. Unlike me and my daddy, Momma and I had something special together, in the way it ought to be between mother and daughter. When I was real little, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to be more than my momma. I wanted to have her long, thin fingernails and her wispy gray-blonde hair, because it braided so much nicer than mine did. I remember the hours I used to spend spinning the gold band around her ring finger while she watched old imported British TV shows. There wasn’t anywhere else I wanted to be in the whole world. Right up until we heard the car door slam in the driveway and then Momma picked me up bodily and dropped me into bed with a hasty kiss. I never could quite make out what they were saying to each other every night but I knew from the rise and fall and hissing of their voices, of the thuds on walls and coffee tables, that it wasn’t nice. Momma never said much about it and Daddy was always solemn the next morning. But that was just the way it was.
But with him gone, what little money we’d had from his unemployment checks just washed away downstream too. Everything was a little leaner around the cupboards. A few cans of creamed something or other on the shelves. A little bit of old deli meat sitting on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Every night, I went to bed with this awful gnawing growl. It was so angry and demanding that I could feel it on the outside of my stomach. Not a little grumble, but great big bowling balls roar. Like, if I didn’t feed it soon, it would take matters into its own hands and start eating me from the inside out, just like what started to happen to Daddy.
And I guess that’s when I made up my mind the first time. See, with him gone things weren’t getting any better. Now, the kitchen was empty and Momma was just angry, and getting by just wasn’t good enough anymore. So, I decided right then and there to pack up my stuff and be gone from such a place.
But things don’t always happen the way you plan them. That bag is still sitting in the corner of my room, filled with clothes, a little rainy-day money, a few light keepsakes. It’s just sitting there collecting dust.
Because, these days, the other thing I think about all the time is cancer. It always seems like it just appears. One day, you’re normal — you’re working and playing and living life just like you’re supposed to, and all of a sudden there’s this big old goose egg taking up residence somewhere deep down in your body. I never knew anyone with such an advanced case, but I’ve heard tales about these people with 13-pound tumors, and they look pregnant from them. And when they finally see a doctor and find out what it is, that’s when they start getting sick, but not before. It’s like…what’s that old saying? What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Like Old Henry could’ve lived on to be 150 years old if they just hadn’t told him about the stomach cancer. Then all of a sudden he couldn’t walk, wouldn’t get out of bed, and was as bald as the tires on my car.
It was the grief — whether from losing my daddy or letting it all go to hell, I don’t know — that made the cancer in Momma. The doctors all said it was from smoking too much, which could have been true because she always looked like a train engine with a steady stream of blue-gray smoke coiling around her head, making a ghostly crown before gathering at the ceiling until it looked painted yellow. But I think it was the grief, because she always held things inside for a long time and never said a word about what was eating her up. Used to be, when Daddy was alive, you might find her crying a bit, but more often I’d find her bottle behind the toilet tank. She drank her sorrows away until she was so dehydrated from all the alcohol that there were no tears left in her body to weep out.
So, I’m certain it was the grief. She balled it up, tucked it way down in her lungs — an odd place to keep your grief — until it grew and grew and solidified into the cancer that made her so sick. She had a whole lifetime of sorrows balled up down in there. And the sorrows finally took up so much space that she couldn’t breathe without remembering any of them, and it was easier just to have the doctors cut it out. Except that they couldn’t cut it out, because there was just too much of it to take. So instead they left it in, and the sorrow kept rotting away at her lungs until there were no lungs left, just a mash of all her regrets.
So, I couldn’t leave. Not in any real conscience, anyway, because with Daddy already gone, I was all she had left. I brought her food when she was hungry and kept her medicine coming and changed the TV channel when she couldn’t find the remote and it hurt too much to breathe.
Momma and I were still close in the way we were supposed to be now, that mother and daughter dance of Hallmark cards, with a sappy forever-kind of understanding. But we had our secrets. Like she never told me how much she had hated my dad, despite I had heard the tears she shed while making dinner. Or how I had seen the four little bruises all in a row up her arm. And just like how I never told her how lonely I got some days, and how I thought I could fix it if I were just that much skinnier or smarter or braver.
I never told Momma any of that thought, because she needed to know how strong I was. Momma was doing the best she could, what with working and supporting us and keeping the house clean and staying happy all the time. And Daddy was so mean. Momma never had any light in her eyes if Daddy was home — only when it was just the two of us. But I couldn’t let Momma know how sad I was, because that would be letting her down. So, I started practicing how to keep things way down deep too. I guess it was a family tradition.
So, we had our secrets, but it was okay because you couldn’t have love without secrets. But that was before, and these days we had even more secrets between us. Like how much I hated that she looked like a robot with all the tubes and cords and beeping machines attached to her day and night. And like how I couldn’t forgive her for getting sick because I still needed her and now she just sat all day watching daytime TV. A lot of days we just sat.
Momma, who never complained overmuch, owing to keeping it down so much, was now a demanding sort. She kept me hurrying back and forth bringing her things. The remote. Her puzzle book. Something to eat. But it wasn’t too bad most of the time, because at least we were spending some time together. Even so, we still had words sometimes.
“Go down to the store and get me a bottle, would you dove?”
“The doctors don’t want you doing that stuff no more, Momma. It’s not good for you —”
Mama growled way down deep in her throat, a wet, gravelly sound, but still there wasn’t much fight in it. “I’m in a damn hospice bed. If I want apple pie for breakfast, I’m going to eat it. And if I want to drink a whole damn pint in my nighty, I’ll do that too.”
I walked away with her still making those low sounds. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t for everyone involved.
I saw her point. There wasn’t enough life left for her to go on worrying about being in shipshape. But I didn’t have to like it and I didn’t have to agree. Never mind that things had been bad enough with Daddy drinking the money away but things were even leaner now that Momma can’t work. With her meager bit of pay, we at least had enough to buy something to eat once a day. But now, it’s all up to me and there’s nobody who wants to hire me. They’ll hire the sot I went to high school with because she’s pregnant again, and it wouldn’t be Christian of them to turn her away. Mostly, I make some money by babysitting and the odd job here or there. It gives us enough to pay the rent and enough food, but there sure weren’t enough to be buying her alcohol every day. There were maybe a couple other things I could be doing to make a little money, but I didn’t like to be thinking like that until I had to.
Last night there was a thunderstorm — the kind Momma used to like when she could make it out to the porch. One of the really good ones where the thunder is almost right on top of the lightning and the whole sky lights up with each blast. But Momma couldn’t get out of the hospital bed they’d moved into the living room when it got so bad she couldn’t walk no more. They had her morphine up so high that she really wasn’t seeing much of anything right then, but I worried that the lightning might still spook her a bit in her drug haze, so I went out and sat in a metal lawn chair by myself.
Not many storms coming ripping through our little canyon — we got the mountains on the west side, and they gobble up all the good ones, so we just get the leftovers. But this was a monster storm. The whole night sky was lit up with crooked little fingers and though the sky was going haywire, I felt calm for once. Like nothing could touch me. Like come hell or high water, I was going to be just fine. The sky finally stomped itself out, and I went to bed for the night.
Hell really did come and, with any luck, high water will follow soon. The lightning storm started up 13 desert fires that blazed across the sage brush and wheat fields. Except that blaze isn’t the right word. More of a steady crawl across the plateau, creeping along to the edge of the canyon before deciding to descend on our little town. The short grass didn’t leave enough fuel for a real blaze. It was just something to chew on, like old jerky, until it could reach a wheat field and then some poor old farmer’s house, which is exactly what it did.
As the town was blanketed in smoke so thick it could have been fog and wind — which we never seem to get unless we didn’t need it — the brush fire flared up overnight. The whole town slept thinking the firefighters had it all under control. But sometime in the dead of night, the fire crept up on Mr. Wallis’s house. If I had to guess, I’d say Mr. Wallis isn’t looking too much like other corpses. He’s probably in a far more advanced state than the rest of them.
By the time the neighbor woke up and saw the fire, it was just smoldering. And when the crews got there, there was nothing much left to put out. Sure, they found enough of old Mr. Wallis to know he was in there during the fire, but it was just a few bones with the fire’s teeth marks etched deep.
I watched the fire from our driveway for a while the next day. It was still marching our way, coming down slowly through the sagebrush and junipers. I set Momma up next to the sliding glass door so we could watch them dip the helicopters together. The river was closed down a good stretch of 10 miles so the helicopters could hover over it real low, dip its bucket down into a real slow place, and suck up enough gray-green water to empty over the plateau. And there were the smaller planes too, like repurposed crop dusters that dropped blood-red fire retardant down on top of the flames. It was a slow going process, even though it seemed like it would have been such a small thing for them to kill that fire. It got to be so bad with the wind and all that you could hardly step out your backdoor without your eyes and nose and throat burning from the smoke immediately, so Momma and I just watched from the inside. We sipped our pops and remarked on the skill of the pilots. It was something to see. After a while, I quit seeing the fire. And I wasn’t feeling so down about Daddy and the money and everything else. All I knew was that I was sitting with my momma on a fine summer day. And life was good, because none of that mattered anymore, just that we were together.
But the good things never last. The one thing Daddy always said was that the good die young, and I guess that that goes for things too and not just people. Because pretty soon, the firemen were going door to door in their heavy boots and jackets in the August heat. They knocked and waited patiently at our door with their ashy helmets held respectfully in their hands, like someone would while talking about death. And they might have well have been.
I answered the door even though I didn’t want to. We stood there looking over the threshold at each other, not saying anything for a moment. The fireman cleared his throat and I thought I could hear the ash being dislodged.
The town was in too much danger, he said. The wind was whipping around too much to get it under control in such wind. It was time to go, no doubt about it.
I shut the door solemnly behind me. My heart was jumping straight up into my throat, and I couldn’t tell if it was panic or smoke that was making my throat itch.
Momma was sitting up in her bed, looking a fair bit more clear-headed than I’d seen her in a long time. She patted the bed next to her.
“Sit a minute more with me, dove.”
I sat gingerly, as not to upset the bed too much. I took her hand in mine. It was papery and thin and felt like it might just fall away into nothing at all. It was a change from the thick hands that used to pat me to sleep. We sat like that for a good long while, not saying anything and just drinking in each other’s company. There was a whole number of things we could have been saying, but we didn’t.
I was thinking of all the ways I could get us out of there. We had a little gas in the car but it wouldn’t quite get us to the next town. But I could get us partway there and then walk until I found someone to give me a ride, if Momma could just lay down in the back seat a while. But there were the cords and things to think about. And the electric. And the morphine.
Momma squeezed my hand, and it was a fair bit stronger than I would have expected, especially considering that ever since the smoke started she’d been having an awful time trying to catch her breath.
She didn’t look much like the Momma I remember, except for in her eyes. They were the same gray-green they’d always been, even though her skin was almost clear and her hair so stringy and flat. And even though she’d been sick for so long, I could still see my Momma in them.
She patted and squeezed and there wasn’t any two ways to be taking her meaning.
The last thing I remember is my old dusty bag hanging in my hand as I looked over town from the viewpoint. I watched as the fire kept on creeping down, making its slow descent to everything precious. I kept watching as it jumped the highway and ate up my Momma’s prized arborvitae before spreading through our dead front lawn. It was only when it got to the snap dragons planted just outside the front door that I had to look away. And the thing that I focused on, go figure, was the orange glow of the fire’s reflection in the ripple of the river.
Jamie Grove is a writer with stories featured in Oregon East and the 2009 WriteNOW! Anthology. Her story, “Homecoming,” will be featured in an upcoming issue of 805 Lit+Art. Jamie lives on the dry side of Oregon, where she works as a proofreader, with her husband and children.