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TALKING TO THE DEAD
By BONNIE GROVE
David C. Cook Copyright © 2009 Bonnie Grove
All rights reserved.
Kevin was dead and the people in my house wouldn't go home. They mingled after the funeral, eating sandwiches, drinking tea, and speaking in muffled tones. I didn't feel grateful for their presence. I felt exactly nothing.
Funerals exist so we can close doors we'd rather leave open. But where did we get the idea that the best approach to facing death is to eat Bundt cake?
I refused to pick at dainties and sip hot drinks. Instead I wandered into the backyard.
I knew if I turned my head I'd see my mother's back as she guarded the patio doors. Mom would let no one pass. As a recent widow herself, she knew my need to stare into my loss alone.
I sat on the porch swing and closed my eyes, letting the June sun warm my bare arms. Instead of closing the door on my pain, I wanted it to swing from its hinges so the searing winds of grief could scorch my face and body. Maybe I hoped to die from exposure.
Kevin had been dead three hours before I had arrived at the hospital. A long time for my husband to be dead without me knowing. He was so altered, so permanently changed without my being aware.
I had stood in the emergency room, surrounded by faded blue cotton curtains, looking at the naked remains of my husband while nurses talked in hushed tones around me. A sheet covered Kevin from his hips to his knees. Tubes, which had either carried something into or away from his body, hung disconnected and useless from his arms. The twisted remains of what I assumed to be some sort of breathing mask lay on the floor. "What happened?" I said in a whisper so faint I knew no one could hear. Maybe I never said it at all. A short doctor with a pronounced lisp and quiet manner told me Kevin's heart killed him. He used difficult phrases; medical terms I didn't know, couldn't understand. He called it an episode and said it was massive. When he said the word massive, spit flew from his mouth, landing on my jacket's lapel. We had both stared at it.
When my mother and sister, Heather, arrived at the hospital, they gazed speechlessly at Kevin for a time, and then took me home. Heather had whispered with the doctor, their heads close together, before taking a firm hold on my arm and walking me out to her car. We drove in silence to my house. The three of us sat around my kitchen table looking at each other.
Several times my mother opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Our words had turned to cotton, thick and dry. We couldn't work them out of our throats. I had no words for my abandonment. Like everything I knew to be true had slipped out the back door when I wasn't looking.
"What happened?" I said again. This time I knew I had said it out loud. My voice echoed back to me off the kitchen table.
"Remember how John Ritter died? His heart, remember?" This from Heather, my younger, smarter sister. Kevin had died a celebrity's death.
From the moment I had received the call from the hospital until now, slumped on the backyard swing, I had allowed other people to make all of my bereavement decisions. My mother and mother-in-law chose the casket and placed the obituary in the paper. Kevin's boss at the bank, Donna Walsh, arranged for the funeral parlor and even called the pastor from the church that Kevin had attended until he was sixteen to come and speak. Heather silently held my hand through it all. I didn't feel grateful for their help.
I sat on the porch swing, and my right foot rocked on the grass, pushing and pulling the swing. My head hurt. I tipped it back and rested it on the cold, inflexible metal that made up the frame for the swing. It dug into my skull. I invited the pain. I sat with it, supped with it.
I opened my eyes and looked up into the early June sky. The clouds were an unmade bed. Layers of white moved rumpled and languid past the azure heavens. Their shapes morphed and faded before my eyes. A Pegasus with the face of a dog; a veiled woman fleeing; a villain; an elf. The shapes were strange and unreliable, like dreams. A monster, a baby—I wanted to reach up to touch its soft, wrinkled face. I was too tired. Everything was gone, lost, emptied out.
I had arrived home from the hospital empty-handed. No Kevin. No car—we left it in the hospital parking lot for my sister to pick up later. "No condition to drive," my mother had said. She meant me.
Empty-handed. The thought, incomplete and vague, crept closer to consciousness. There should have been something. I should have brought his things home with me. Where were his clothes? His wallet? Watch? Somehow they'd fled the scene.
"How far could they have gotten?" I said to myself. Without realizing it, I had stood and walked to the patio doors. "Mom?" I said as I walked into the house.
She turned quickly, but said nothing. My mother didn't just understand what was happening to me. She knew. She knew it like the ticking of a clock, the wind through the windows, like everything a person gets used to in life. It had only been eight months since Dad died. She knew there was little to be said. Little that should be said. Once, after Dad's funeral, she looked at Heather and me and said, "Don't talk. Everyone has said enough words to last for eternity."
I noticed how tall and straight she stood in her black dress and sensible shoes. How long must the dead be buried before you can stand straight again? "What happened to Kevin's stuff?" Mom glanced around as if checking to see if a guest had made off with the silverware.
I swallowed hard and clarified. "At the hospital. He was naked." A picture of him lying motionless, breathless on the white sheets filled my mind. "They never gave me his things. His, whatever, belongings. Effects."
"I don't know, Kate," she said. Like it didn't matter. Like I should stop thinking about it. I moved past her, careful not to touch her, and went in search of my sister.
Heather sat on my secondhand couch in my living room, a two-seater with the pattern of autumn leaves. She held an empty cup and a napkin, dark crumbs tumbling off onto the carpet. Her long brown hair, usually left down, was pulled up into a bun. She looked pretty and sad. She saw me coming, her brown eyes widening in recognition. Recognition that she should do something. Meet my needs, help me, make time stand still. She quickly ended the conversation she was having with Kevin's boss and met me in the middle of the living room.
"Hey," she said, touching my arm. I took a small step back, avoiding her warm fingers.
"Where would his stuff go?" I blurted out. Heather's eyebrows snapped together in confusion. "Kevin's things," I said. "They never gave me his things. I want to go and get them. Will you come?"
Heather stood very still for a moment, straight-backed like she was made of wood, then relaxed. "You mean at the hospital. Right, Kate? Kevin's things at the hospital?"
Tears welled in my eyes. "There was nothing. You were there. When we left, they never gave me anything of his." I realized I was trembling.
Heather bit her lower lip and looked into my eyes. "Let me do that for you. I'll call the hospital—" I stood on my tiptoes and opened my mouth. "I'll go," she corrected before I could say anything. "I'll go and ask around. I'll get his stuff and bring it here."
"I need his things."
Heather cupped my elbow with her hand. "You need to lie down. Let me get you upstairs, and as soon as you're settled, I'll go to the hospital and find out what happened to Kevin's clothes, okay?"
Fatigue filled the small spaces between my bones. "Okay." She led me upstairs. I crawled under the covers as Heather closed the door, blocking the sounds of the people below.CHAPTER 2
It was dark when I half woke. I wasn't alone in the bedroom. I could see nothing in the darkness, but I could feel Kevin standing by the door. My heart beat out a staccato rhythm, but my body remained loose and limp. I opened my mouth, but found I had no voice. The words I formed fell back into my throat. His presence seemed to move from the doorway to the end of the bed. Whatever his intent, I was powerless to either resist or comply. I blinked in the darkness, tears forming at the corners of my eyes.
"Go back to sleep. Everything is fine," Kevin said, his voice low and commanding.
Everything wasn't fine. He was dead and I was alone and none of this was supposed to happen. I rolled onto my side and sobbed as the darkness overtook me.
I awoke with a start. I heard a noise, rumbling and deep, like a man's voice. I strained my ears, but heard nothing more. The sun peered in around the blinds. Kevin's clothes were at the bottom of my bed, neatly folded.
I grabbed the clothes and buried my face in their folds. They smelled of citrus, as if recently laundered. I slipped on Kevin's blue-striped dress shirt. His belt lay coiled on top of his black slacks. I found his wallet in the back pocket and placed it on top of his dresser beside his wedding ring the funeral director had returned to me only two days before. Something was missing, but I couldn't think what. Another noise, this time like the scraping of a chair.
I headed downstairs. I went into the kitchen and was neither surprised nor alarmed to see Blair Winters sitting at the table. He looked up from the magazine he was reading and gave me a small "Hey." Blair held up the set of keys that Kevin had given him the day we moved in. "I let myself in." He pocketed them.
Blair Winters was Kevin's best man at our wedding and best friend in life. He was a pallbearer at Kevin's funeral and cried without restraint at the grave site.
They were an unlikely pair, Kevin and Blair. They had met at basketball tryouts their junior year of high school. Kevin was a serious guy who believed in hard work and dating one girl at a time. Blair was already on his way to becoming one of the most popular guys in high school. He had a rumpled, lazy look that drove girls crazy, which was fine with him.
When Blair left Greenfield for college, everyone in town said he'd never come back. They were wrong. The ink wasn't dry on his degree before he was back in town, much to the delight of his mother and the dismay of several coeds. He opened a small skateboard shop that dealt in exclusive, expensive parts. His mother had called his shop "a fine waste of an expensive degree."
I could still see the remnants of the playboy I knew in high school as I looked at Blair's face that morning. I noticed lines forming around his mouth, and a sadness that stretched over his face like a mask, but they did nothing to diminish his sex appeal. Even in my numb state I recognized his appeal. He looked like a man any woman would kiss. A coed, a mother, a nun.
I grabbed a box of cereal. "What are you up to?" I opened the fridge for the milk. I had to move two casserole dishes and a bowl of grapes in order to reach it. The entire town had cooked for me. I would be eating lasagna for years.
"Nothing," he said, tossing the magazine into the recycle bin by the back door. "I checked on you, but you were sleeping so I came down here."
"How long have you been here?"
He looked at his bare wrist. "Uh, it was pretty early when I got up. I couldn't sleep so I decided to go for a walk. I wandered around for a while and found myself in front of your guys' house. Your house." He pawed at his face with both hands. "I guess it was around three," he spoke into his palms.
"A.M.?" I asked stupidly.
I shrugged and grabbed two bowls. Blair and I ate our cereal in silence.
"Do you want to know what his last words to me were?" Blair asked, breaking the stillness. He didn't look at me, just traced the maze on the back of the cereal box with his index finger.
"We were on the phone, the day before he ... We'd been talking for about ten minutes; I was trying to help him with a problem he was having." He threw me a look I couldn't read, and then went back to the maze. "It was just some stuff at work he was trying to get straight. Anyway, at the end of our conversation, he said, 'You're a great friend, Blair. Like a brother.'" Blair's face trembled and crumbled. I thought he was crying, but when he spoke next his voice was calm. "Do you remember his last words to you? I mean, do you want to tell me?"
Kevin's last words to me? Did he kiss me good-bye before he drove off into his eternity? Did he call me from work to tell me he'd be home early—or late? Had he called on his cell phone, pounding his fist at red lights and telling me how he loved me? I didn't know. I couldn't remember.
Since Kevin died, I had tried to look into the days and weeks prior, but all I could see was a yawning, dark hole. My memories had been taken by blunt force. I wasn't sure when it happened, when my memories had slipped away. But looking at Blair's grief-doused face, I was certain they were gone.
Most of them, anyway. The dark hole, the abyss where my recent past resided, wasn't a complete void. Swirling in the midst of obscurity were pockets of light, like snapshots. Each one swam alone, unconnected to any other, unfettered. One of them, more a soundtrack than an image, played over again in my mind: Kevin saying, "Don't wait for me."
The statement taunted me like a bully. What did it mean? Whom was he speaking to? When had he said it? And when would I remember again? But even if I couldn't make sense of what he was saying, I played it over and over in my mind just to hear his voice.
Blair stared at me for a few moments, and, when it was clear I would say no more, he got up from the table in a series of jerky movements that caused milk to spill from his bowl onto the table. "Sorry. I should go." He walked to the back door. I followed wordlessly. Blair kissed the top of my head, an easy place for him to reach. He was over six feet tall, I just over five foot four. "If you need me, I'm only a phone call away. Day or night, Kate. Okay?"
He reached for the knob and hesitated. He turned and looked into my eyes. "Seriously, Kate. Anything."
When he was gone, I locked the back door and felt the emptiness of the house enfold me.
I left the dishes on the table and walked into the living room. Everything had been cleaned mercilessly. I could see no evidence of the funeral reception. It was as if it had never happened. I sat on the floor, my back to the two-seater sofa, and drew my knees up to my chest. Maybe it hadn't happened. Maybe it was a mistake. A divine clerical error.
Once, when I was at home unpacking my food after grocery shopping, I discovered a bag that didn't belong to me. I had stood in my kitchen wondering what I should do with four avocados, a package of condoms, and denture cleaner. Maybe that's what had happened this time. I'd picked up someone else's tragedy by mistake.
"The cereal is going to dry right onto those bowls," Kevin said from the kitchen.
"Who cares?" I said, lost in my wishful thinking.
"You hate it when the cereal is stuck to the sides of the bowl."
"I'm cold," he said.
"Where are you?"
My head felt light, a nebulous balloon floating above my body. I ran into the kitchen, catching my toe on a chair. "Kevin?" There was no one there.
The phone rang. I stood immobile, staring at it. My heart ricocheted off my breastbone as I reached for the receiver. I picked it up and pushed it to my ear. My lips parted. "Kevin?"
"Kate?" my mother said. "Are you there? I wanted to tell you that I left a turkey salad in the fridge for your lunch." I nodded, saying nothing. I hung up. It wasn't Kevin. He wasn't here. Hope and helplessness blended like oil and water in my stomach. Of course Kevin's not here, I thought. He's dead. No one talks to the dead.CHAPTER 3
I rambled through the main floor of my small house that night. Earlier the sunset had thrown prisms onto my walls, but now it was dark. The only light came from the streetlamp shining through the front window, turning my walls the color of muddy floors. Normal people were sleeping. But I wasn't normal, not anymore. Several times that night I stood at the bottom of the stairs that led to my bedroom. I gazed up into the darkness of the second-floor hallway, but I couldn't climb the stairs. Couldn't lift a foot to the first step. It was as if my desolation had multiplied the power of gravity. I was stuck.
My body was somnolent, but my restive mind barked out orders to keep moving, stay awake, stay watchful. I paced on rubbery legs, longing for unconsciousness. My mind, luminously awake, sewed blindfolds of anger and forged a strong rope of despair. Bound and helpless, I spoke: "Kevin?" Only the ticking of a clock responded. I picked up a cushion from the sofa and hugged it like a lost love. "Kevin, are you there?" I waited for an eternity. I closed my eyes and concentrated on trying to hear his voice. I listened until my head hurt. The silence whistled to me.
Excerpted from TALKING TO THE DEAD by BONNIE GROVE. Copyright © 2009 Bonnie Grove. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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