The old woman fills her days volunteering for a Catholic garden club planting flowers in vacant lots on the town’s east side, where at night gangs shoot it out amid trampled pansies and broken-off cosmos. She goes back anyway. Everyone in the neighborhood knows her, calls her the crazy flower lady.
Faces of Death IX showed a burning apartment building. From a balcony high above a jam-packed street, a frantic crowd grabbed at an out-of-reach lifeline dangling from a helicopter that hovered like a dragonfly. A window exploded, rocketing glass shards through smoke and flames at the trapped people. Some hurled themselves into space. They tumbled and cartwheeled, their cries a soprano overlay to the bass thumping of the helicopter.
Pauline looked away. Beside her, Ian, her teenage son who’d rented the video, munched popcorn and deposited a water-beaded Mountain Dew can on the oak coffee table. “Cool, huh?” he said.
Pauline moved the can to a coaster and wiped the ring with a Kleenex. As the video sequence was replaced by a flailing man clinging to a swamped car until choppy flood waters sucked him under, she glanced at the teen, opened her mouth to remind about putting drinks on the table, but didn’t. She looked away from his chewing jaws. “They should have stayed on the balcony.”
“Ah, either way those dudes were toast.” Ian twirled the ring in his left ear. “Didn’t you love the way they flopped as they fell? One looked like he was riding a bicycle. Goddamn awesome!”
Pauline’s face turned red. “Ian, you know I don’t like foul language.”
“Tough, Mom.” Ian’s yawn revealed a hull stuck to a tooth. “Dad never minded.”
“Well, Dad isn’t with us now.”
“Yeah, he’s lucky. He’s dead.”
This again, she thought. “Well, I don’t understand why you like videos like this.” She shook her head. “Couldn’t we watch something that’s more upbeat? We have Moonstruck.”
“Chick flick, Mom. Bo-o-o-ring. Bogus as hell. Makes me want to puke. But this.” He jerked a thumb at the screen. “This is real life.”
“Ian, those were real, living people. Who even thought of turning this into a movie?”
“Don’t tell me you never wonder what it’s like to die.”
After what had happened to Gary, she tried not to think about it. “All flesh is as grass,” she said. “And all the glory thereof as the flower of grass.”
“And thus,” Ian chirped, “Sayeth the Preacher.”
She raised a finger to point something out, thought better of it. “But, Ian, if you accept Jesus, there is no death.”
“Yeah, right. I’m gonna live forever.” He whistled the theme from a movie she hadn’t liked and fast-forwarded the video through a shrieking girl mauled by zoo lions. “Accept Jesus! So how come da man got crucified?”
“He didn’t stay dead. He rose from the tomb and—”
“Yeah, yeah, I read the book. Mom, if he’d really been cool, like Stone Cold Steve Austin, he wouldn’t’ve put up with that shit. He’d’ve hopped off that cross and kicked some butt. And thus sayeth my preacher.” He swigged his drink and tossed the can at the table.
Pauline set the can upright on the coaster, wiped sticky drops from the cover of Midwest Living. They’d been over that many times since Ian told her he didn’t believe in God. He even refused to go to Mass. That was Gary’s fault.
“I know you miss him.”
“He let me express myself. I loved him, Mom.” His eyes glistened. “You didn’t even want me.”
“One time we got buzzed together and he got out those old picture albums. Him in bellbottoms, fringed vest and tie-dyed shirt, you in that long paisley skirt and thick glasses. He said you wanted an abortion.”
She gasped. “That isn’t true!” An outright lie, in fact it was Gary who’d urged the abortion. Of course she refused. When the nuns at school noticed, they told her to marry him, adding that she was lucky to find anybody to want her, as plain and chunky as she was. Instead of college she’d became a housewife. But with Gary dead she couldn’t tell him that. It would be wrong. And knowing Ian, he wouldn’t believe her anyway.
While the next segment played she still saw the burning high-rise. That was like her life, she realized. Her choice. Stay and hope for rescue. Or dive, flailing and tumbling, and hope someone would catch her. How many die jumping from burning buildings when help would arrive if they only waited? How many go up in flames because they’re afraid to jump?
That night, worry kept her tossing in bed. Ian was becoming stranger and even more distant. For hours he locked himself in his room with friends in baggy pants and black t-shirts printed with slogans that made her blush. They played video games where long-haired, half-naked thugs with bulging muscles shot laser beams that turned their targets into sprays of blood. The boy needed a father. A real father. Not someone the way Gary’d been.
She wanted to ask friends what to do, but discovered they weren’t really her friends. They were Gary’s. Or friends who’d liked them as a couple and, now that she was alone, treated her like half a person. Sure, after the funeral they’d called to ask how she was doing, and she told them she was fine. Then the calls dwindled, stopped.
And she ached from loneliness. She’d read in People that a woman over forty was more likely to be struck by lightning than to get married again. Even when married, she’d been lonely for a long time. Gary had played clubs on the road, where women who’d drunk too many piña coladas tossed room keys at the charming, though balding, jazz sax player.
After she’d discovered the notes in his jacket, the nude Polaroid photo in his sock drawer signed “Love and Lust,” the key to room six of Blackbeard’s Lodge where he hadn’t stayed, she confronted him. She displayed on the kitchen table the evidence that Gary didn’t deny.
“I wish you wouldn’t see other women,” she’d told him. “But for Ian’s sake I can put up with it, so long as you don’t bring it home with you.” Just the thought of Gary being inside made her gag.
On their anniversary, though, she drank too much champagne in the Jacuzzi and found herself feeling so empty she relented. He gave her turquoise earrings. And something else, luckily curable with antibiotics.
Love, Pauline believed, is patient, is kind, endures all things. Over the years, though, the Summer of Love had faded into the autumn of herpes, the winter of AIDS. She made Gary move out.
After separating, she met Dennis. They couldn’t date, of course, just be friends. They sat in a booth at TGIF over late-night coffee, and when she opened her heart, he listened, eyes locked to hers, chin on a fist, long gray hair gleaming. Stout and nearing sixty, face as ravaged as the coalmines he’d worked in before attending college, Dennis taught drama at the university. In Louisiana he’d been an actor. His one-man show as Truman Capote, complete with lisp and thin cigar, had made it to Vegas, then smaller and smaller resort towns. His next show as Tennessee Williams closed after two performances.
His love of the arts never wavered, and he introduced her to the symphony and plays and foreign movies where they held hands during the romantic parts. Even though he was much older, she found herself falling in love.
But another kind of falling besieged her dreams. As a child, she’d dreamed she could fly. Just flap her hands like baby bird wings, the way she dried nail polish. In her dreams now, the same every night, she was plummeting like the people in the videos her son loved. Far below, Dennis circled like a sun-dazed outfielder, holding a basket no bigger than a Frisbee. Each time she woke before learning if he caught her.
Dennis urged her to get a divorce, but the Church maintained that wedding vows meant what they said. Until death do us part. In this world and the world to come, Gary was the one man God had ordained for her.
Things went on like that until Gary dropped dead. A police officer slipping a ticket beneath the Nissan’s wiper spotted the body in the driver’s seat, a tiny metal pipe holding white crystals in his lap.
Heart attack, the coroner ruled.
To heal her, Dennis suggested a weekend on Isle Royale. She hesitated but persuaded herself that if Ian came along, it wouldn’t be a romantic excursion. Just a trip with a friend.
Ian balked. “Nature sucks.” He stuffed more gum into the wad that bulged out his cheek. “So who is this Dennis guy? Your latest hunk?” he asked snidely.
When Dennis arrived to pick them up, Ian yanked his hand back and snapped, “Don’t expect to like me.”
On the island they hiked sandy trails that snaked through pines and red cedar. They peered through binoculars at loons that yodeled and dived. When they canoed, Ian hitched up baggy shorts, yanked down a backwards cap with a Red Wings logo, twirled an earring in the shape of a grinning skull and refused to paddle. Pauline brushed back copper-colored hair, adjusted her wide-brimmed hat and flailed at the waves until oozing blisters covered her fingers.
While they floated on the blue water, the bottom rising from purple depths to shelves of tan sandstone, Ian made sarcastic remarks about the Titanic. He made fun of Dennis’s white suit and straw hat. “You look like an escapee from the Kingston Trio.” Of his southern accent, he said, “You sound like that dumbass on Andy Griffith.”
Dennis chuckled and smiled patiently through it all. He was so kind, Pauline marveled, so gentlemanly. He’d make a wonderful father.
For their honeymoon Pauline left Ian with her sister so she and Dennis could sail to an inn on the Les Cheneaux Islands. The lake was too rough, though, so the newlyweds spent their wedding night ashore in a Motel 6, where they had sex for the first time. Afterwards, Pauline broke into tears and locked herself in the bathroom.
“Come on,” Dennis coaxed through the closed door. “I wasn’t that bad, was I?”
“It’s Ian,” she sniffled. “At the reception he was telling everyone you killed Gary.”
“Kid’s gone through a lot, so he resents me taking his father’s place. He’ll come around. Besides, he’s a teenager. Teenagers are supposed to be surly.” Dennis chuckled. “Nature’s form of birth control.”
“I’m losing him,” she wailed, eyes focused on the cracked tile in the shower.
Pauline hoped Dennis would discipline Ian, but Dennis wasn’t the disciplining kind. Trying to win the boy over, he ignored the beer bottles behind the couch and only scowled at the horror videos about men, deformed in body and spirit, who stalked young women, ripped their clothes off and killed them in increasingly gory ways.
They sent Ian to counseling, but it didn’t help.
“Dumb old shrink,” Ian muttered after the fifth session. “All she does is ask how I feel, then tells me how I feel is stupid.”
“For God’s sake,” Dennis assured Pauline after Ian got a tattoo of a fire-belching dragon. “Everyone his age is like that. Pretty soon he’ll get interested in girls and all this will pass.”
Ian refused to continue seeing the therapist. Days melted into months when he didn’t come straight home from school and fell silent when asked where he’d been. Evenings he emerged to gobble dinner, then retreated to his room, the thudding bass notes shaking the door. His favorite song, which he sang while washing the dishes, was something about Romeo and Juliet, we’ll be able to fly, we can be like they are. She didn’t know what to make of it.
“Dennis,” Pauline said. “You’ve got to talk to him.”
“He’s going through a phase. He’ll be all right.”
One day Pauline came home from her job at the mall to find the filing cabinet rifled, the spare MasterCard gone, the Buick missing from the garage. No note, no phone message, nothing.
Yanking at her copper hair, she raced from bedroom to den, kitchen to empty garage. After frantically calling everyone who knew Ian, Pauline stared out at snowdrifts as if that could make the Buick appear.
“Let’s not worry yet.” Dennis held her tight. Mascara-streaked cheeks smudged his jacket. “He’s probably at a friend’s.”
“I’ve called everyone!”
“We don’t know who all his friends are. Maybe he went to the comics shop.”
As evening turned to night, Pauline imagined drug dealers, pederasts, Ian’s picture on the cards that accompany junk mail. “Something terrible’s happened,” she whispered.
Pauline called the police. The next day, Dennis called Ian’s school. The office staff was surprised. Ian had told his teachers his family was moving out of town.
The credit card trail led south, and at last the Buick turned up at a strip mall in Tampa, Ian asleep in the back seat, alone, unmolested and enraged at getting caught. He’d sprouted a scraggly beard. When Pauline reached to hug him in the police station, he pushed her away. He wouldn’t say where he’d been.
“I just want to know where you went!” she pleaded. “I won’t judge you,”
“Easy for you to say, Mom.” Ian’s mouth twisted. “You judge me every fucking minute of my life.”
Pauline blushed. Dennis said, “Watch your language, son.”
“I’m not your son.”
After that, though, Ian grew softer. He stayed after school for computer club meetings. He actually seemed to be studying. His grades improved.
Then came the vacation in Australia. Dennis wanted to climb Ayers Rock, snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef, see Tannhauser at the Sydney Opera. Since they hadn’t had a real honeymoon, why not? But Ian dug in his heels. No particular reason, just no. Hoping to tempt him, Pauline put travel brochures on the coffee table next to Faces of Death XI.
“Stupid country,” Ian said. “Nothing but pandas and kangaroos.”
“Look at this beach.” Pauline handed him a pamphlet where tight-muscled girls in bikinis frolicked in frothy waves. “You could learn to surf.”
He rolled his eyes. “Lame, Mom. I’ve been to Sleeping Bear Dunes. You’ve seen one damn pile of sand, you’ve seen ’em all.”
They offered other enticements. Water parks and video parlors, wax museums where Jack the Ripper snarled and Lee Harvey Oswald smirked. But no.
Finally, over supper Dennis snapped, “For God’s sake, if he doesn’t want to go, send him to your sister’s.”
Pauline sniffled, “She won’t have him. She won’t tell me what he did the last time, but she said never again. N-E-V-E-R.”
“Then let him stay here,” Dennis said. “He’s old enough to take care of himself. If he needs anything, he can reach someone from the college. We’ll phone home every day.”
Pauline shook her head.
“What’s eating you, Mommy dearest?” Ian said, sucking in a spaghetti strand. “Don’t you trust me again? Dad always did.”
Dennis set down his fork and dabbed tomato sauce from his lips. “He’s got a point. How can he show he’s responsible if we don’t give him the chance?”
That night as she and Dennis lay in the dark bedroom, a streetlight threw sinister shadows through the blinds.
“What if he runs off again?” she asked.
“He won’t. He’s changed, can’t you see?”
“He’ll run away, I just know it.”
“He’s maturing. Besides, having us here didn’t keep him from taking off before, did it?”
They argued long into the night, and she hated that. They resumed the fight over breakfast. At last, as with so many things, as she often had, as she always did, she gave in.
The first few vacation days were fine. He was all right, Ian told her over the phone. No, he wasn’t ordering pizza. Yes, he was microwaving the meals she’d left in the freezer. Yes, sometimes friends came over, but always left before midnight. No, nobody was drinking.
Then Pauline’s calls reached only Dennis’s answering-machine voice.
Sorry we missed you, Ian,” she said cheerily. “You must be taking out the garbage or something. Give us a call when you get this.” She tried again when it was late night in Michigan. “Ian, you didn’t say you planned to go somewhere. Call us, Hon.” Worry swept her face like a typhoon.
The next day she was shrieking, “Ian, where are you? Pick up. I’m worried sick. Call us!”
Pauline sat rooted by the phone. She wouldn’t go to the reef, the opera, even downstairs for dinner. They contacted one of Dennis’s friends, who went to the house and reported no lights, no answer to his knock.
Pauline sat on the edge of the bed, head in hands, rocking and moaning. “He’s run away again!”
Dennis was watching TV, an Australian rules football match, where men in shorts and tank tops leaped and tangled. “Maybe he can’t work the answering machine. Or he doesn’t know how to make the call. You have to dial a country code, you know.”
“I showed him how.”
“Probably in his room playing that damn rap stuff and doesn’t bother checking the machine.”
“Where was he when your friend went over?”
“Out somewhere, renting one of his morbid videos. He’s all right. Believe me.” He held her close until she fell asleep on a pillow soaked through.
When Ian didn’t answer the next day, they flew back home. While Pauline sat twisting her wedding ring, and the TV monitor above the seats showed a cartoon plane crawling across the Pacific, she prayed for it to go faster, faster. She wanted to leap out and push, make it overshoot California and go straight to Michigan. Images from Faces of Death assailed her. Ian struck by lightning, gunned down at McDonald’s, flattened by a semi. Trampled by a moose, bitten by a black mamba, devoured by piranha.
It took forever to claim their bags. She called and called, but no one answered, and at last they sped home. Pauline, who normally chided Dennis about reckless driving, urged him to go faster, to squeeze out the last microsecond of a yellow light, to pass on the shoulder.
When they reached the house the mailbox was stuffed, its rusted door hanging open. Snow clogged the drive, so they waded through drifts from the street. The house was dark and empty.
“I knew it!” she wailed.
“He can’t be far,” Dennis said, trying to stroke her chin as she wriggled free. “I’ll call his friends.”
His friends didn’t know where he was. In the TV room ants swarmed over a mound of pizza boxes. A sleeping bag was rumpled on the couch, and empty beer cans had left rings on the coffee table, strewn with videos. One was Faces of Death XIII. Others, Pauline gasped to see, were X-rated. The answering machine held the messages she’d left, plus two from the video store about overdue tapes. Ian’s bed was neatly made, exactly as she’d left it, including the Valentine and candy kiss on the pillow.
Boiling water for tea, Dennis noted that the spare garage door opener was missing. He proclaimed the news to Pauline. “He took the opener, Hon, so he’s planning to let himself in.”
Pauline crammed pizza boxes into a plastic bag, added a wad of soggy Kleenex, and entered the garage from the kitchen. Drowsy flies bashed against the garage window, and a stench like rotting chicken assaulted her nose. Ian must have left the can uncovered, she thought. She was always reminding him about that. She’d mention it when he came home.
Maybe a few days after he returned.
She groped for the switch, flicked on the light, and there he was.
His jeans and undershorts were bunched around his ankles. A sprawled-open magazine showed pictures of masked men having sex with tied-up women in merry widow corsets. Fastened to the garage door handle, a rope passed over a rafter and looped around Ian’s neck. The opener lay beneath unlaced Nike’s dangling inches from the floor.
His face was as black as the Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt.
“Dennis! Oh, my God!” She jumped back against the doorjamb, and the impact made Ian sway and twirl.
Dennis was at her side in an instant. “I’ll call 911.”
Before she could think, she went for him. Fingernails scratched at his eyes, and fists flailed until he imprisoned her wrists. “Why,” she panted, “did you make me go to Australia? He’s dead! You killed him, you fucking son of a bitch!” As if a swarm of snakes had just slithered out, she clapped a hand over her mouth and ran to the bathroom. The lock clicked shut just as Dennis reached for the knob.
Dennis cut the boy down, shook him, waved a palm over unseeing eyes, listened for breathing, waited. Waited for nothing.
While the ambulance crew smoked cigarettes in the driveway, a police officer said to Dennis, “Damn shame. We’re getting a regular run of this sort of stuff.” He slid the rope through a fist. “He was using the opener to tighten the noose, see?” A flashgun flared.
“How,” Dennis said, numbness spreading through him. “How long—”
“Coupla days. Three, four, maybe. The lab’ll know.”
“And he was doing it—”
“For kicks. Used to be glue, then aerosols, now this. How close can you come without going over?” He shook his head. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
Pauline’s priest refused to perform a funeral for a suicide, so a Unitarian minister presided. Standing beside her sister, Pauline refused to look at Dennis on the opposite side of the chasm where the coffin balanced. Dennis ordered a grave marker much fancier than they could afford and begged Pauline for forgiveness.
It didn’t come.
Dennis was Protestant. You repented, got forgiven and went on with your life. Pauline was Catholic. You went to confession, did penance, but that just kept you out of Hell. In Purgatory, you still had to pay and pay and pay. In this life and in the one to come.
She filed for divorce.
Pauline lives alone now. Except for pictures of Ian covering bookcases and nightstands, his room is just as he left it. The bed is tidy, a foil-wrapped chocolate kiss on the fluffed pillow. Each week she replaces the plastic roses on Ian’s grave and then plants flowers in vacant lots on the rough east side of town. People in the neighborhood wonder why the crazy white woman keeps coming. Sometimes they talk to her. They ask if she’s married. She says she isn’t. Sometimes they ask if she has children.
She tells them she doesn’t.
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