“I went to the funeral home today,” her grandmother said. A beginning. She had more that would come.
“Oh? And how was it?” Michelle was a world away from her grandmother. She was in California, the land of dry heat and crisscrossing six-lane highways, sitting one and a half hours from the beach in a sea of smog.
“It was fine.”
“Yeah? What was wrong with it?” Michelle felt her own nasal accent creeping in, bringing with it a polite displeasure she had hoped she’d left behind in the Midwest.
“Well, nothing was wrong with it,” a pause. “It’s right in town. And it doesn’t smell dusty. You know how I’m always wary of places that smell dusty.”
“Of course. Especially a funeral home.”
“Right. Exactly. But, well, there was a funeral ending when I went over to check it out…”
“And the parking attendant––”
“Nice that they have one! I wouldn’t have expected that.”
“Well, they’ve got to. You don’t want people parking with tears running down their faces. It’s just that well––It’s that the parking attendant, he’s got one leg.”
“Yes, he’s a young man. Now I don’t know if he lost it in the war or if he was born like that––”
“Why does it matter?”
“How he lost it? Well, it doesn’t matter much, something to be curious about, I suppose.”
“No, that he has one leg.”
“Oh, well. You don’t want it to, of course. But it’s distracting, and I don’t want people to come to the funeral, and all they can think about is the leg, how he lost it, how can he afford that bionic one as a parking attendant––”
“He’s got a bionic one?”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s bionic, exactly. But he’s walking on something, metal, and computerized looking. A fake leg.”
“You see? It’s distracting. I’m sure people would be sitting there wondering about him, instead of thinking about––”
“Yeah, I see. But you don’t know if he works every day.”
“Oh, I’m sure he works every funeral. They only have them once a week or so.”
“Will you look at other places?”
“No, no. I mean, where else would I go? All the way to Racine?”
“It’s not worth it.”
“Okay. When do you need me on a plane?”
“I gave them the deposit for Sunday, so as soon as you can, Shells.”
Michelle’s plane skidded to a stop, with the back-left wheel bouncing once, at 6:32 on Saturday night.
She stood in the ground transportation area with her backpack slung over her shoulder as she waited for an Uber. She was half worried no one would come, but her Grandmother insisted that even Union Grove had joined the modern world.
A burly man lit up a cigarette next to her. He was tall and thick muscled. He didn’t seem aware of himself. If he went to LA, Michelle knew he would lose whole percentages of his body fat and be sculpted into a knock-off superhero. He was the kind of guy they only grew out in the plains; the coasts didn’t have enough space, and the earth was too polluted. She watched him as he held his cigarette between his forefinger and his thumb, the old-fashioned way like Paul Newman. That was one nice thing about being home: people still smoked in Wisconsin. As her Uber pulled up, he gave her a cursory nod, and she was suddenly disappointed to be in sweats on her way to a funeral. She would much rather be climbing into the backseat with him.
She kept her headphones in to avoid talking to the driver, a middle-aged guy named Mohammed in a Packers jersey. They only passed two cattle ranches on their way out. Not as many as there used to be, but there were still hundreds of cows. They reminded her of the ants in her ant farm she had the summer she turned seven, the first one she spent living with her grandmother. They were brown dots littering the landscape, squished and scrambling. She loved to watch them, to be in charge of something, to have something depend on her. She watched their little brown butts grow bulbous and thought: They’re full of the food I gave them. They were the only pets she ever allowed herself. Anything else might’ve gotten too attached to her.
Back in California, people would refuse to eat meat from places like this. She was at a party once, in Silver Lake, with a vegan bent on proselytizing. She managed to keep her head down, to not draw his attention, but she still remembered his words: I’ve been out there, to the West, where they grow cows like bacteria in a test tube and butcher them like they solder bolts on their pickups, one after the other. You wouldn’t touch meat again if you saw it.
Michelle went to Carl’s Jr. on her way home and got a double.
“What room am I in?” Michelle asked after she greeted her grandmother’s three arthritic labs, their golden chins turned white since the last time she had seen them.
“What a question! Your own, of course,” she put the kettle on, lighting the stove with a match.
“I thought there might be more guests.”
“Nope. You’re the only one flying in.”
“Oh. Is anyone else coming tomorrow?”
“Of course. Uncle Fred, all your cousins, and that man she dated for a while, what was his name? Bobby?”
“Bodie.” One of the dogs scratched at Michelle’s leg, she reached down to pet him and realized she didn’t know if he was John, Paul or George.
“Oh, sure. Yeah, he was real broken up about it.”
“Was she seeing him again?”
“Somewhat recently, I think.”
“I’m gonna hop in the shower.” The clack of nails on hardwood told her she was being followed.
“And your tea?” Her grandmother called after her.
“I’ll be back in ten. It’ll still be warm!” Michelle said, making her way up the stairs. She heard a murmuring continue in the kitchen, but kept moving until she was out of earshot and under the sputtering showerhead.
They spent the night watching TV, something Michelle hadn't done in a while. Her Grandmother let her control the remote and move through the basic cable selections all she wanted. They went back and forth from SVU to a local report on speed traps, both of which felt familiar and comforting, and did their best to drown out Michelle’s grandmother’s questions about her future, her dating life, and if she would be home more often, now.
She didn’t sleep well that night. The room was as sparse as she had left it. She had never decorated, even though she inhabited it from seven to seventeen. She was always ready, worried she would be pulled back into the mess of her early life. She didn’t want to get too used to anything comfortable.
Her grandmother had left it like that, white walls, childhood dresser from Walmart. Michelle knew that if the walls had been pink, and there had been posters of Destiny’s Child and Panic! At the Disco, they would have remained until the tape that held them to the wall yellowed and weakened. But she played it safer than that.
She put on eyeliner but avoided any lipstick, knowing her grandmother would think it was gaudy. She had brought one black dress with her, a wrap dress, classic and simple. But wearing it now, in the second floor of the farmhouse, she looked like a High Schooler in a Good Wife stage dramatization. Still, it would have to do.
“You ready?” Her grandmother called.
Michelle’s heels click-clacked down the hall, readier than she was. They were oxford pumps, and she had finally managed a perfect bow.
Her grandmother was at the foot of the stairs, hand on the railing, expectantly.
“Hey, Grandma,” Michelle forced a tight smile, trying to reassure them both.
“You’re not wearing those shoes, are you?”
Michelle looked down, making sure they were talking about the same thing. She wiggled her toes in her vintage leather pumps. “I am.”
“You’re going to wear red high heels to a funeral, Shells?”
“They’re not red. They’re oxblood.”
“I bet ox’s blood looks like bull’s blood. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. It’s red.”
“Oxblood is just a term, Grandma, for this dark burgundy color.”
“I don’t care what they’re called. Take them off.”
Michelle’s stomach swirled, “I don’t have any other shoes besides my sneakers.”
“Oh, for god’s sake,” her grandmother turned around and walked towards the door. “Get in the car, then.”
“I told you. He works every funeral.”
Michelle looked up from her phone to see a man in a yellow traffic vest wearing a Brewer’s cap and a three-day scruff. He had a prosthetic. It was the kind Michelle had seen on National Geographic covers, like that runner turned murderer from South Africa had. It looked fancy. Her grandmother pulled closer to him.
“You here for the funeral? It don’t start until noon,” he said.
“Yes, we know. We’re the family. Wanted to get here early. Is there a special spot for us?”
“Oh, sure. Closest one to the entrance.”
Michelle gave him the expected smile, and he tipped his hat.
Her Grandmother parked and started unpacking things from the trunk. The parking attendant came over to help. The metal of his leg caught the sun, and Michelle had to squint to look at him. Her grandmother was handing him two-gallon jugs of pop and iced tea lemonade. He was walking back to the funeral home, arms full and swaying when her grandmother gave Michelle a display board with dozens of photos taped to it. It was the kind of thing that was always at funerals, but somehow Michelle hadn’t thought it would be at this one.
“Take it in,” her grandmother said as she filled her own arms with totes full of plastic cups and styrofoam plates.
Michelle just looked at her.
“There’s a table by the front entrance. We’ll be setting up the display there.”
Michelle followed the parking attendant, and she tried not to look too closely at any of the taped pictures. One kept flapping. Even though she’d only peeked at it from the corner of her eye, she knew it was of her grandmother, her mother, and her at a haunted house. The McFadden’s made a haunted house out of their old barn every fall. Her mother loved them, and Michelle did for a while too. It was one of the few family outings.
Bodie sat in the front next to Michelle and her grandmother and cried his eyes out. Big, heaving sobs that turned into hiccups. Michelle hated that her chair was next to his. She hated that her Uncle Fred and all her cousins might think she had condoned her mother’s disastrous relationship with him or anything about her mother at all.
But this was it. This would be the last time they would start speaking about her mother and then stop, knowing Michelle was near, and slide their eyes over her pityingly. There was nothing left to feel that way about anymore. No failed mother-daughter relationship to fix.
She didn’t speak. Only the pastor did, and he said generic things. Life everlasting guaranteed to anyone who would believe. Michelle wished that they had cremated her mother so she wouldn’t have to stare at the casket. The mahogany shined and smiled.
During the reception, Michelle parked herself in front of the table of food. She had three baby carrots dipped in ranch, and then one celery stick just as it was, to wash down the ranch. She wasn’t hungry, but she didn’t know what else to do with her hands or her mouth.
“Moments like these are so hard, but I find the only thing that helps is food, well, and family,” suddenly her cousin Cyndi was standing next to her—talking to her.
“Oh,” was all Michelle could manage.
“I’m so happy Grandma feels like she can count on all of us at a time like this. She was so busy with so many things. There’s so much to do when someone dies. Honestly, I hadn’t realized. It reminded me of planning my wedding! I was over yesterday, before you landed, just checking in, you know? And she had pulled out all the old albums to make that photo board. Have you looked at it? There’s a cute one of us when we were little, in Grandma’s backyard. Not sure if it was after you went to live with her or before.”
“How’s my hair?” Michelle asked.
Cyndi looked at her blankly.
“In the picture? What hairstyle do I have?”
“Oh. Pigtails, actually. A little messy, but you were very cute. My hair was just––”
“If I had pigtails, I was still staying with my mom. She told me to wear pigtails every day. No matter what. She wouldn’t do my hair. She’d have me do it myself and pigtails were the thing I could do best.”
“And then when I moved in with Grandma, she would do my hair. Mostly she’d gel it back in that sleek ballerina bun, or sometimes braids. She was terrified of lice.”
“Really? I don’t remember her talking about lice.”
“Well, it was different for me. Living with her and all.”
“Sure. And who knows, maybe you had it when you were with your mom. I remember Dad and I picked you up from this one place, all the way down in Minneapolis. I had never seen anything like it. Dad and I didn’t go in, of course, but one of the windows was missing, and they had just taped a garbage bag over the hole. Do you remember?”
Michelle closed the door behind her and caught a breath of fresh air. There was a small bench on the porch of the funeral home. She sat down and unlaced her shoes, slipping them off and stretching out the muscles in her toes. She hadn’t worn heels in months.
The parking attendant came around the corner of the house and leaned against the wall. “What happened to your shoes?”
“I took them off. My grandma hated them.”
He shrugged, “Not many red shoes in there, huh?”
He kept leaning, and so she felt she had to keep talking. “Do you work every funeral?”
“Yup,” a pause. “So, you’re family then?”
“I’m the daughter.”
“Didn’t know Mary Jo had a kid.”
“She didn’t raise me.” Michelle wondered how he could know her mom, but her grandmother wouldn’t know his story. Usually, if you know something about somebody, they knew everything about you. The obvious answer was that he hung around the same kind of people as her mother did, but his forearms didn’t have any track marks.
He motioned for Michelle to move over on the bench, and she did. He took a seat and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “You smoke?”
“Sure,” Michelle nodded and reached for a cigarette. “You local?”
He looked at her as though she should know the answer. “Out by Bohner’s Lake originally. But I’ve been in Union Grove for a couple years now.”
“You knew my mom?” She realized she had taken too long a drag of her borrowed cigarette and her cherry had grown to an inch. She told herself to slow down.
“Not really. Sometimes I pick up a shift at The Temptation.”
“I’ve never been in there.”
He raised his eyebrows, “It’s the only bar in town.”
“I didn’t like running into my mother.”
“That’s awful sad,” he said, turning his eyebrows into a triangle on his forehead.
“How’s it not sad to avoid your mother your whole life?”
“I mean, yeah, it’s sad. But it also, maybe, in another way, could be funny.”
“Yeah. It’s easier that way. Like Cyndi’s big smile watching everyone eat the celery sticks she brought.”
“I don’t know who Cyndi is.”
“Anyway, usually teenage girls are sneaking off to The Temptation, right? Kind of funny that I was running away from it. Avoiding the popular kids ‘cause I worried they might have seen her there.”
“Hard to avoid her in a place like this, no? Bar or not.”
“I live in LA. I don’t come back here much.” Michelle looked up at the stick straight blue sky. Even through her cigarette smoke, she could smell the fresh grass that grew firmly out of every pore on Wisconsin’s skin.
“Shame. It’s a good place to call home.”
“You ever lived anywhere else?”
He shrugged. “I did the rodeo circuit for a while. Went all over the West. And a couple of army bases.”
Michelle nodded. “Were you in Iraq?” Her cigarette was over already, but he was still nursing his.
“Sure. But I don’t count that as living somewhere. Nowhere that the army sent me was really living, it's just hanging out in a place and getting ready for the rug to be pulled out from under you.”
Michelle swallowed. “I can imagine that.” And then, because she couldn’t help herself, she asked: “Is that where you lost your leg?”
He laughed. “Nope. I lost it doing rodeo. I was trampled by a bull. In front of a big ol’ crowd, too.”
Michelle raised her eyebrows. She wanted to laugh too, but she felt she had to double check that he was the rare Midwesterner who had a sense of irony.
A voice pulled her attention away. “We’re getting ready to go to the cemetery, Michelle. You’d best come back in, now.” It was Cyndi, of course.
“Oh, sure.” She bent down and slipped her feet back into the pumps, the stiff leather laces bending slowly to her will.
Michelle, Bodie, and her grandmother rode over in the funeral home’s black town car.
Bodie looked out the window, loud manly sighs escaping him every few seconds. Michelle felt her grandmother’s whispers in her ear, hot and wet, “Red shoes are better than no shoes, Michelle. Cyndi told me she saw you with your shoes off smoking with the parking attendant. Really, now! I was not expecting that when I said he was distracting. Really! Michelle!”
Her grandmother’s assumptions made her want to go to The Temptation tonight, nothing to fear there anymore, she supposed.
The minister spoke again, this time in front of a smaller crowd. The dirt was dumped quickly on top of the casket, and the prayers were murmured.
It was over. Bodie kept crying. Michelle surprised herself and cried too. It had been about three years since she last laid eyes on her mother. They were in the Chili’s where they had celebrated one nice birthday and kept returning. It was if they both thought it might be magic, that the atmosphere might hide their resentments. Perhaps, because it was a place they had laughed together once, those walls, tables and waiters knew it was possible, and would help them laugh again. It hadn’t worked that time. Michelle couldn’t even quite picture what her mother had worn that day, or what color her hair was. Michelle thought her hair had been their shared natural brown, but it could have also been the dusty orange her mother dyed it sometimes. Bodie was there, brought out as evidence of having her shit together. Michelle didn’t see it that way. She didn’t remember anything they said to each other. It might have been Bodie who did the talking. He always said that Michelle and her mother belonged together. He would say it like that, in front of them both. Michelle would feel guilty then, about not wanting to see her mother more, but she imagined that at least it was a feeling they had in common.
Bodie saw Michelle’s tears and reached for her, “She talked about you all the time, kid. All the time.” He pulled Michelle closer, and she pulled back, her heel catching on the Astro Turf that was there to welcome them to the gravesite.
She tripped. If she had leaned into Bodie she could have caught herself, but she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. Her hand sunk into the fresh grave after she felt her knees hit the ground hard, popping at the contact, and people gasped. She was picked back up by her elbows, suddenly, like they were about to carry her away.
Her handprint looked desperate, picturesque. She stared at it as her grandmother brushed at her knees. It was about three inches deep, a perfect impression. It reminded her of the kind of thing you’d see in a horror movie trailer, the sudden appearance of a handprint, and the scream of the audience.
“I’m so sorry,” she found herself saying, looking at her grandmother in the eye. “I didn’t mean to. I’m so, so sorry.” She looked over at Bodie. He was shaking his head.
The minister led the congregation back to the service and to God. No one brushed the handprint away, at least not while they stood there. Michelle bit her lip so she wouldn’t laugh. The whole thing was too absurd. She couldn’t look away.
And for the first time since landing in Wisconsin a few days before, Michelle missed her mom. Her mom, who loved scary movies, and who would have cackled hearing about someone tripping onto a grave during a funeral. Michelle could hear her voice inside her head, “Well, Shelly, if your knees are already dirty, you may as well have some fun…”
Michelle would never have engaged. She would have turned her head away. She would have felt rage pool in her belly. She would do her best not to think of her mother for months. She would have tried to destroy the very memory so it didn’t keep her up late at night, angry at someone who probably wasn’t thinking much about her at all. She would run away and not come back for years. She would have said that’s not how mothers were supposed to talk to their daughters. But her mother would have kept laughing, and told her to lighten up. Michelle wasn’t sure she knew how, but she thought she might try.