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I feel like a hothouse tomato somebody jerked out of the pot and stuffed in the ground, then forgot to water.
I thought I was doing fine, all dressed up, finally back on the piano bench at Smithville Baptist Church playing the prelude.
Then Laura McCord, the town's failed opera singer and chief busybody, leaned over and said, "Pssst, Emily. Your shoes."
Good lord. One blue and one black.
That's what I get for trying to be a Nancy Reagan kind of widow who glides gracefully through grief instead of what I am"a slightly hysterical, totally clueless, recently bereaved woman who doesn't have the foggiest idea how I'll get through the rest of my life without Mike Jones.
I don't think I should get out of the house again for about six years. Why didn't I take Delta's advice? She's smarter than I am, more educated, more beautiful, more everything. If she weren't my first cousin and best friend, I'd hate her.
"Emily, you've got to let yourself grieve. Hole up and just let it rip. Stop prancing around trying to act like Bob Hope entertaining the troops."
That's me to a T, always front and center, making sure everybody is having a good time, spinning tales, making them laugh. Even in the aftermath of death, for Pete's sake.
Delta writes travel guides at the speed of light" a workaholic, her husbands said"and I finally convinced her to go on to Hot Springs where she's researching not one but two guides"one to spas and the other to great Southern restaurants.
Although I'm three years older, it has always seemed the reverse to me. She came into this world screeching and batting her fists against the injustice of beingjerked out of the safe haven of the womb into a remorseless world where her daddy would vanish under cover of night when she was six, and both her husbands would walk out to "find something more"as if there were anything in this world better than Delta Jordan.
I'd hugged her hard, and then said, "You go on now, Delta. It's high time for me to grow up."
She knew exactly what I meant. Mike petted and pampered me and protected me from life's messy chores, such as balancing checkbooks. If I'm to survive without him, I've got to start learning how to do a few things by myself.
But first I have to finish playing the prelude. I don't know what possessed me to think I could sit here only three months after the funeral praising the Lord with music instead of wanting to box his Holy jaws for prematurely jerking my husband up to Glory Land.
Granted, Mike was sixty-five, fourteen years older than I. Still, he had the joie de vivre of a fortyyear-old. What he didn't have was the capacity to win over the cancer cells that invaded his brain.
I'm going to beat this thing," he'd say, even after all his hair was gone and he could barely put his harmonica to his lips. I believed him. I would picture the Big C slinking off in the face of Mike's riproaring rendition of "Mess Around."
He loved blues. It's the kind of music you fall into, the kind that leaves no room for death and the injustice of being the one left behind to cope.
"Pssst, Emily." Laura McCord taps me on the shoulder again. "Stop it."
I drown her out, falling into this music, tapping the rhythm with my fashion faux pas shoes. The preacher gets down from his pulpit and heads my way.
"Emily, I'll have somebody take you home. I don't believe this church is ready for rockabilly."
To my mortification I realize I've segued from high church music to Ray Charles's "Mess Around."
Maybe I am losing my mind and I'm only imagining myself a widow. Maybe Mike is holed up somewhere right now consulting with the best psychiatrists about my care.
I stand up, unable to look at anybody, unable even to remember where I parked my car. Mercifully, somebody takes my arm and leads me from the church.
"I'll drive you home in your car. Laura can pick me up after church."
The voice brings him into focus, Mike's fishing buddy and Laura's husband, good old salt-of-theearth Jim McCord, who has endured her warbling and gossip for fifty years. They make crowns for people like him.
When we get home, eagles are flying along the Tenn/Tom Waterway that meanders behind my house. I feel the power and pull of wings, as if Mike flew off somewhere wonderful and I am left earthbound and longing.
"Do you want to lie down?" Jim asks.
What I want to do is sit on the deck awhile. Three years ago, when we finally decided to sell our too-big, empty-nest home near Tupelo's Country Club and move thirty miles to this rustic, multilevel house featuring a bank of windows facing the water, Mike fell in love with the eagles, and so did I.
Now, mesmerized by their graceful, arcing flight and the blue of water and sky melting together in the too-warm temperatures of an unusually hot Mississippi spring, I stand on my deck imagining myself flying off with them.
The eagles circle low, then light on their aerie atop a bald cypress in the shallows of the river. This is a sight too beautiful not to share, but when I turn to point this out to Mike, Jim's the one standing on the deck.
His bald spot is turning red with anxiety, thick glasses are sliding down his sweat-slick nose and his large, liver-spotted hands look like small beagle puppies. Suddenly I feel a rush of comfort. The sight of him in that exact spot is so familiar I expect to see his fishing gear and his old canvas fishing hat resting on the redwood decking behind him. I'll ask him"as I have a thousand times"how many catfish he and Mike caught, and then I'll laugh because Mike is always the one who stays at the boat to clean the fish.
Any minute now my husband will come whistling up from the waterway, his Mississippi State baseball cap battered and droopy from too many accidental dunkings in the river.
"Emily, are you all right?" Jim asks. "Can I get you anything?"
Get my husband, and make it snappy. That's what I want to tell him. Go down to the boat and tell Mike to quit messing around and get his cute butt home. The joke's over. I don't want to play widow anymore. Let's play something else. Dominoes or Chinese checkers.
"Maybe you ought to lie down. I can get you an aspirin."
Just what the doctor ordered. Take two aspirin and wait for everything to be normal again.
"How about some pie?" I say.
"You want some pie?"
"Oh, goodness, no. Come in, Jim. I'll make coffee and we'll have pie. Lemon icebox. One of Laura's."
Her saving grace is that she takes pies to the sick and afflicted, but I stuck every one of them in the freezer so I wouldn't have to think of my husband that way, which just goes to show the state I'm in. Denial.
I stride through the door, safe in familiar territory now. I know how to do this. I know about dinners for twelve and linen napkins and eggshell china and cucumber sandwiches served on white bread with the crusts cut off.
Maybe I'll throw a big house party, invite everybody I know, tell them to bring their sleeping bags and stay awhile. Two or three years. Maybe five. Long enough for me to get used to this awful realization: I'm in a foreign country called Grief and I don't have the faintest idea how to speak the language.
After Jim leaves, I shower and put on my favorite fuzzy blue robe, although it's only the early part of the afternoon. I'll sleep in it, then wear it all day tomorrow. It saves making decisions. They all seem so big now.
Emerging from my bathroom I hear the recorded message on my answering machine: "Hello. You've reached Mike and Emily Jones. We're not home right now, but please leave a message."
Well, he's half right. Emily's here, but Mike's not. Maybe that's him calling to say he'll be late driving back from wherever he is"Texas, to advise his bossy sister Lucille about the family ranch"and I should save him some pie.
But no, it's Delta. "Emily, are you there? Pick up."
I grab the phone as if it's my lifeline. Which it is. "I'm here," I say, and then I start bawling. Delta is the only person besides Mike I've allowed to see every one of my feelings and emotions, no matter how messy or ridiculous.
When my cat Leo became the victim of a hitand-run because I was too busy being a newlywed to see him streaking through the open door, Mike got a new kitten for me. But Delta came over with a six-pack of Hershey's bars with almonds, two white candles for an all-night vigil and a book called Cat Hymns for the memorial service.
"Em, I'm coming right home, and don't try to stop me."