Mary Ordos' beautiful story about a widow reflecting on her life as she tries to get her husband to his funeral.
Rachel was looking for the jack. The large black one which for three years had been in the back of her husband's car. Her husband, Brandon, was in the back of a hearse, which was on the side of the road with a flat tire. Her son, Isaac, was waiting for her in his carseat with a poopy diaper.
When the tire popped, Rachel had been following the hearse down Capitol Way towards the cemetery. She had seen the rubber burst and glided off to the shoulder behind the hearse. When she stepped out of her Honda, Norm, the funeral home driver, had yelled to her that he needed another jack, so she had slipped back in with expressionless acquiescence and driven down Capitol Way, past the Frog Pond Grocery and the Capitol grounds, down on Union to her neighborhood on the east side.
Her body vibrated as she drove; she tapped the steering wheel and jiggled her left leg and kept lifting one or the other of her hands off of the wheel to touch her collarbones and her chest. Her heart felt tight and hot below her breast; slipping her fingers beneath her blouse to feel her own skin, she tried to scratch beneath it to the yawning, aching grief that had opened up inside of her, trying to grasp it, to pull it out.
She imagined that the grief, if she could hold it in her hand, would be black and red: a beating, bleeding heat, full of shadows and caverns which were slowly being consumed by their own emptiness. She felt it stretching its dark tentacles throughout her body, following her arteries into her muscles and filling them with shadowy pain. If she stopped moving, if she stopped fighting, she knew her heart would break open, like a ripe melon on a sharp rock, ripping membranes and spilling darkness out of her in a long angry gush that would coat her body in shining dark fluid and leave her sobbing, gasping for air.
Isaac screamed in the back seat while they wound their way back through town to the house. She looked at him in the rearview mirror and tried to wrestle her face into a comforting expression: "I know baby. I know."
They had purchased this house, with this sinking garage, a year and a half ago, when they were pregnant with Isaac. She had thought it was sweet, then. She had thought the repairs would be good for Brandon, keep him busy. The realtor had shown them the property with disinterested confidence, but Brandon and Rachel's appreciation for his selection soon overpowered their efforts to remain equally cool and aloof. It was a sunny yellow home with a decent backyard - a scraggly fig tree was growing in one corner, just beginning to bear fruit. A child's swing now hung from one of the Douglas Firs in the opposite corner, a bright red and blue shell that she often watched sway from the kitchen window when a breeze stirred around the house.
There had been a small miracle when they bought the house: Brandon's parents had agreed to co-sign the bank loan. They had always held their tongues in front of her - on the whole they were quite pleasant - but Brandon had told her enough about Southern hospitality for Rachel to know they would be more frank when she was gone. Years before, when they were first engaged, his parents told Brandon that they "could not in good conscience have anything to do with him anymore." As far as they were concerned, he - their beloved only son - was marrying the Whore of Babylon. It was worse than if she had been an atheist; it was too much for them. Brandon's little sister, Grace, had been more tolerant - at least she had come to their wedding - but she was pretty wrapped up in her own life, trying to make it on Broadway. Grace was bipolar and though she was now on medication, Rachel gathered that the care Brandon had given her when they were growing up was poorly reciprocated.
Brandon didn't bother to tell his parents that he had agreed to raise the kids Catholic. And when he converted a couple of years later, he just sent them a "Thinking of You" card with a terse statement about his confirmation inside.
But time and grandchildren heal all wounds, and by the time they were looking for a house, Brandon's parents had come around.
After talking with the realtor, Rachel and Brandon had gone to Batdorf and Bronson to think about the house over coffee and tea. Looking out the window, Rachel saw pale white light streaming down through a hole in the grey clouds, and when she looked back at Brandon she felt a strange and beautiful hope growing inside her, wondering if it was possible that life could be so good. Somehow that feeling got fixed to the swing when Brandon put it up, and when she would look out the window and see its bright plastic harness, she felt a bubble of joy buoying up inside of her.
Sorrow seemed to hunt them, before the house. Both of Rachel's parents had died within a year of each other (which was also within two years of their marriage) and after the young couple had finished with the funerals, their duplex flooded twice in an eight month period. It seemed like they just couldn't catch a break.
Now, as Rachel made her way through the darkened garage, looking for the jack, she remembered looking into her father's face, just before he walked her down the aisle, and seeing through the veil of her happiness the canyons that were carved into his cheeks and how very old and tired he seemed. Her father was seventy-two, and her mother sixty-nine when they passed. Her mother had a heart condition, her father asymptomatic kidney failure. Or at least they didn't identify the symptoms from his "normal" health complaints. Both of her parents had had health problems for most of their lives, and by the time they had her, at forty-five and forty-eight respectively, they had stopped believing that they ever could. She was their grand surprise and, she was told, their greatest joy.
They weren't perfect people, and in some ways it was hard growing up with older, tired parents, but she could never shake the sense that they had given their lives for her, and in that feeling, a tiny seed of guilt grew. She tried to please them in everything, striving to be the perfect daughter to repay their tired sacrifices, but she could never seem to get what she really wanted - their full, attentive, loving presence - and she felt guilty about wanting it. They gave her life; what right did she have to ask for more?
They were both very devout and had raised Rachel to love God and help others, but somehow her guilt colored that too - insinuating its dark tentacles into her acts of charity and sense of purpose. She felt compelled to give more and more in service to others in order to repay some debt she wasn't clear how she had incurred. She tried to see things from her parents' perspectives and forgive them for their failings. But it was hard to absolve herself of the belief that somehow, all of the pain she saw in the world was her responsibility, and its continuation, her failing. She kept that turbid darkness like a secret in her heart; it was one of the things that made her fall in love with Brandon. He knew that darkness too.
Sometimes, when he came home from the ER, he would just sit on the couch with a beer and stare at the wall. She knew he was thinking of the maimed bodies or dysfunctional families he had met on shift. His face had so much sadness in it that she felt like she might drown just looking at it. But she understood. She had been drowning for a long time.
When her parents had died, he had been so caring and supportive. He managed to love her in a way that she had thought was impossible, with his full attention and concern. And she loved him back. Standing there at the cemetery in their blacks, he held her hand in both of his and the grief clustered and knotted in her dark heart seemed to leave, slowly, like a thread being drawn out by his touch, pulled gently across her chest and down her arm and out the skin of her hand where it met his. As long as they were together, somehow, it would be okay.
It had taken her and Brandon four years to get pregnant, though they were hoping for children from the beginning. She spent those years going to the baby showers of her friends - buying the requisite onesies at Target and fingering the cotton fabric longingly. Cluck, cluck, no tears. She had Brandon, didn't she? Surely that was enough.
When she first got morning sickness, she thought that she had the flu. She took time off from work until she didn't have any sick days left and then kept anti-nausea medications in her desk and made frequent trips to the restroom. It took two months before it occurred to her that she might be pregnant. That night, she hurried out of work to the drug store to buy a pregnancy test. When she showed it to Brandon they both got starry-eyed. They stayed up that night talking about what they would name their child and wondering about what kind of person he/she would be. A week later, they started to worry. Worry turned to panic as they paced through the rooms, noticing every potential threat in their decrepit building to their unborn child: loose wiring, stairs, warped floorboards with loose nails - things their landlord would not agree to fix.
They moved into their little yellow home on 10th Avenue a month before Isaac was born. Brandon spent his time fixing things around the house while Rachel nested. Brandon changed the locks and caulked the windows, re-drilled and moved the loose hand-rail on the stairs so that it sat in solid wood, and put in nails for their pictures. He moved quietly about the house at first, but he soon began singing and swinging his hammer with the unselfconscious quality of a kid at summer camp. If Rachel was in the same room she would watch him, slyly. She would fold laundry or unpack a box and smile to herself about the jaunty way he moved his hips or shrugged his shoulders. He caught her once, grinning at him:
"What?" he smiled nervously.
"I just love watching you work." She blinked her big eyes and smiled wider.
"Are you laughing at me?"
When the baby was born they were foolish in their joy. The first few weeks they sat on the edge of their bed, watching him sleep in his crib, waiting for him to need something. Then they learned: they slept. Then they were exhausted, and wept.
When Isaac was old enough for the swing they put him out to pasture for a few hours every day. Brandon worked odd hours and Rachel had quit her job, so they were often together when they went out to the yard. Isaac loved the swing. The first time he went in it, when he started to sway, his face lit up like a blooming lightbulb bouquet. His small, little head rolled back and his double chin flapped as he laughed and laughed and laughed. His dimples sparkled and his eyes winked and he sounded like a high-pitched lawnmower, sputtering out for air occasionally, before starting up again. His parents lost themselves in an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. They were tired, he was adorable: resistance was futile. They had to sit down on the grass because they were laughing too hard to stay standing. Every time after that was the same. Sometimes Isaac would even start laughing before they'd strapped him in.
Rachel now, in her dour black gown, pulled a box of Brandon's things off the shelf - the stuff the insurance company had returned to her after the wreck. The box contained an old road map of Thurston County, jumper cables, a flashlight, a box of chewing gum, a hat (it still smelled like him), and the jack. The jack was rusty. She grabbed it, hefting it momentarily in her right hand.
As she exited the garage, she looked to her left and saw the bright hues of the blue and red swing there, in the backyard, swaying. She paused, and saw herself running, in her little black heels and well-vetted funeral dress, running to the swing and smashing the hell out of it with the jack until the plastic cracked and the ropes busted. She lurched forward and then back as the feeling of being mocked subsided into an acceptance that this was, after all, how it was supposed to go.
She tucked the jack under her arm and headed back out to the car. She could hear Isaac wailing as she sunk into the driver's seat and she clucked to him reassuringly. "I know baby, I know."