Burial Instructions and Other Stories
From Georgia Hill Road
Clamped on the steering wheel, one hand is at noon, the other at six, and with a flick of the wrists you veer left off Old Grove onto Georgia Hill Road. A doe and three fawns spring out from the margins and leap back in. A foul odor rises inside the car, residue from the morning’s garbage, and with a touch of a button you roll down the windows. Although the air outside is crisp and dry, it harbors the scent of snow. A lusty wind blows in.
In the passenger seat next to you, Melanie doesn’t speak. You don’t want to take your eyes off the truck that’s coming at you like a tornado on wheels, but you glance at her anyway. Her young skin is so taut across the bridge of her nose, you imagine she’s wearing a nylon stocking over her head like a thief. Smile for the camera, Melanie! Say cheese! Do a jig for the company, sing for your supper, pretend this is a video. For Chrissake, do something. But your daughter just sits there as if posed for a still, her long gangly legs planted firmly on the mat. How odd, you think. For once she’s not fidgeting in her seat, not wriggling her feet, not tapping her fingers on the dashboard. Did you say something, Melanie? What’s that again, Melanie? But she hasn’t spoken. If time were intact, she might have said, “So what’s the plan, Fran?” You stare straight ahead, listening to the rippling of her quick shallow breath.
Outside too, logic has fled. Aren’t these garbage trucks supposed to come by in the morning? But it’s not a truck whirling south down Georgia Hill Road; it’s its mirror image, or so it seems, a spinning kaleidoscope on the wrong side of the line, and it’s doing eighty, maybe eighty-five, passing a Jeep on the two-lane road in the waning afternoon. In the shoulder on your right, three young girls are pushing uphill on their shiny red Treks, their faces flushed with wind. If you swerve you can get them all, easier than bowling. The truck will fly by, or maybe it will stop after the driver sees the carnage you’ve created. “What a good mother!” he might say when he realizes what you had to do to save your child. Or, “Now there’s a bad one!” when he realizes what you should have done to save the three young girls. Later you might say to him, to the police, to the girls’ parents, to anyone listening: “There should be no such word as should.”
“Can I get a new cat?” Although Melanie isn’t talking, her voice is rolling in your head. Last week when her cat was run over and you buried him in the woods, you thought you heard her say, “If you dig deep enough, the earth will fold into itself.” You hear her voice everywhere, even when you’re sleeping, and you hear it now.
“Now isn’t the time for this,” you tell her, also in your head. “Can’t you see we’re in the process of committing murder?”
Now hold on just one moment! Don’t these things only happen to other people? But if they do happen to you, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Maybe after all this is over you can start a support group. You can lead your fellow victims in a chorus of that old everyone-is-drowning-and-who-should-you-save song. Why not hum a few lines now? Sing! Enjoy! Go ahead, you have the time. The three young girls appear frozen on their bikes, and the truck is winding down like a wedding ring warbling on the dresser. You don’t know much, but this you know is true: When the universe slows down, time unravels.
◊ ◊ ◊
Ridgewood doesn’t collect its trash. You’ve been told that the roads are too hazardous, especially when it snows. An option is to hire a service out of Hartford, which, despite the snow and for a monthly fee, totes away your refuse every other Tuesday. The problem is, if you take the containers to the curb the night before, in the morning you’ll find them knocked over by deer. True, you can always get them out there just after dawn, but you risk being seen wearing only your pajamas even in the cold months, by other garbage runners also in pajamas, as you race down your driveway in the early morning light. The other option to garbage is to forgo the service altogether. You can get a city pass, which allows access to the municipal landfill. Although the permit is free, you have to buy a token every time you dump, and you’re fined if caught dumping anything recyclable. All the money goes to education; you’ve read that Ridgewood’s teachers are the highest paid in Connecticut. And so, this being the option you have chosen, you pile the lawn bags into the car until you are convinced that not one more can fit, and with all the windows rolled down you drive to the dump. Truth is, you always wait until the last possible moment to haul away your garbage, when you decide you can no longer stand the stench in the garage.
Your husband is large and bristly, yet his hands are womanly, his fingers smooth and reedy. Even though he pampers these fingers, the source of your livelihood, he doesn’t mind handling the trash. It makes him feel connected, though to what he doesn’t say. This morning he has some free time and offers to go with you to the dump, but he says he won’t go with you later to the meeting with Melanie’s teacher. He doesn’t have time for school and garbage.
After you buy the token, you pull out the bags one at a time, first from the backseat, then from the trunk. Using both arms as leverage, you pass him the trash, which he flings into the landfill. Tossing him a large green bag of leaves, you think, Autumn is being compacted, but you keep it to yourself. “She has no appetite,” you say instead. “I’m taking her off the Ritalin.”
“No appetite! She can finish off a bag of Oreos in five minutes flat.” He hauls the bag over his shoulder and swings it over the edge. “What about Dexedrine?”
“No more drugs, Sam.”
“So what’s the alternative? Last night she got it in her head to sharpen every pencil in the house, right down to their stubs.”
You picture Sam’s office at the back of the house. You see a shiny polished desk glowing in the light from the bay window. The shelves are lined with the children’s books he’s illustrated, the walls plastered with all his happy endings. You see his drawing pencils obediently lined up in a tray like little wooden puppets.
“There’s a new therapist at the center,” you tell him. “He says he can see her next week.”
“Not that cognitive-behavioral bullshit again,” he says, his frosty breath leaving a trail, an ellipsis in the air.
“No, it’s not like that. They work on behavior modification, on immediate issues. Don’t you see? She needs to know she can do things right. She needs to feel good about herself.”
“I told you before, the insurance won’t cover it.”
You toss; he hurls. There’s a splattering of glass three cars away, and you wonder who hasn’t recycled. “She’s lonely, Sam. She has no friends. And she’s an only child. I know what she’s feeling. I know what it’s like to grow up alone.”
“Not everything is about you,” he says. Then, as an afterthought: “You weren’t an only child.”
◊ ◊ ◊
After school, you spot your daughter as you pull into the parking lot. Her jacket is unzipped, her sneakers untied. She runs across the pavement dodging Jeeps and Treks, tripping on her laces. “This will just take a minute,” you call through the window. “Wait for me in the lobby.”
Built more than sixty years ago, the middle school is gray and set in shadows. In the classroom, Mrs. Tarter-Brown, Candy to her students, says to sit up front at Melanie’s desk, one of thirty old-fashioned oak relics in five rows of six. Your five-foot-one, now slim frame fits easily in the space. “I’m not fat,” you used to tell your mother. “I have wide bones.” Etched on the desktop is Melanie’s name, and as you run your fingers along the grooves, chips of oak break off, splintering in your skin. I will not misbehave I will not misbehave I will not misbehave is scribbled on the blackboard in one long stream. Mrs. Tartar-Brown””Candy””removes her glasses and wipes them with her sleeve.
Melanie is in the sixth grade. When Bambi””what kind of mother names her daughter Bambi?””invited all the girls in the class except Melanie to her party, Melanie stabbed her in the arm with a pencil. And so it goes:
“She disrupts the class. Is there a problem at home?”
“She’s too easily distracted. Maybe you should cut out sugar.”
“She doesn’t sit still. Is she allergic to any specific food?”
“She doesn’t follow instructions. Maybe you should cut out TV.”
“She’s always losing things. Did you take drugs when you were pregnant?”
You assure her it won’t happen again, Melanie is starting a new program at the center, you didn’t take drugs when you were pregnant, and you realize Candy has other students and can’t devote so much time to just one child.
Shoulders slouched, head low, you leave the classroom. Melanie is not in the lobby where you told her to wait. She’s in the driver’s seat in the car, playing with the controls. “Oh-three-two-one,” she sings brightly. “March twenty-first. The first day of spring.” You look at her blankly. “The code, Fran. On the keypad. How else do you think I got in?” You want to reprimand her, whether for disobeying you or for not calling you Mom you’re not entirely sure, and when you don’t she says, “Can I start the engine?” Show trust in her ability, the counselor said. Make her feel competent. And so through the window you hand over the key. As she turns it in the ignition, the radio comes to life, forecasting snow. Translated, this means that Ridgewood, unprepared for a fall storm, will shut down and you have to stock up on groceries. “Scoot over,” you say. She turns on the wipers and honks the horn. And then she lets you in.
Bambi and two friends, faces stained with shiny red lipstick and thick black eyeliner, are sitting on the sidewalk outside the Chinese take-out next to Grand Union, their shiny red bikes in a heap at the curb. “Oooh, Melanie!” Bambi calls. “Me-lan-ie-me-lan-ie-me-lan-ie!”
“Get a life, turd,” your daughter says.
“Let it go, Mel.” You want to say more, but a familiar ache has seized your throat.
“Hey, melon-head,” says one of Bambi’s friends, “weren’t you suspended? Oh, that’s right, I forgot. Mommy bailed you out again. Did she bring your diapers? Did she burp you too?”
Melanie didn’t cry when she didn’t get invited to Bambi’s party. She didn’t cry when the cat died or when you buried him in the woods. “Like I care if she invited me or not,” she says once inside Grand Union. She grabs the cart and pushes it down the aisle, tossing in four bags of Oreos and a tub of licorice.
“Put them back,” you tell her. And so it goes: At the checkout she pulls down gum and candy bars from the display. “Put them back,” you say again, fumbling for your wallet. She races out through the automatic doors and waits for you outside. You pay the cashier, who nods her head as if she understands. She says she’s a mother too.
Outside, Bambi and her friends are gone. Melanie won’t help you load the groceries into the trunk, so you consider bargaining: an extra ten minutes of TV, a soda with dinner, that new pink sweater. Instead you suck in your breath and say, “That was your handwriting on the blackboard, wasn’t it.” A statement, not a question. She doesn’t answer right away; she holds onto her shell, stirring the moment into one long, indefinable muddle. Her eyes are squeezed into two narrow slits, her arms resolutely fixed across her newly budding chest. The moment hovers, and you think back to that day on the beach, a lifetime ago. You were eleven years old, wading in cool salty water, the elastic of your too-tight bathing suit digging into your thighs. From the shore you saw your mother, lithe and golden, sprawled on a foldout chair, your baby brother shoveling in the sand at her feet. You saw other women in chairs as frayed and tar-stained as hers. You saw children hopping about from foot to foot, demanding towels and shivering. Your mother called and you ran up the beach. You caught a whiff of coconut as she reached for the oil at the foot of the chair. “You forgot to pack his hat,” she accused, and you shrank back as though bitten by a wasp. She pulled her lips into their familiar posture, her smile suggesting she knew you had failed.
“Candy is lying,” Melanie says, breaking the silence as you pull away from Grand Union. “I didn’t write that on the blackboard.” You turn onto Old Grove and she says, “Do I look like a criminal?”
◊ ◊ ◊
The trees are sparse along Old Grove and you can see into the kitchens of other women. Tearing your eyes away from the houses on the edge, you turn sharply off Old Grove, north onto Georgia Hill Road. There, on the other side of the mirror, a forty-yard ten-wheeler is racing back from the landfill, coming straight at you. This is when you negotiate; this is when you beg: If you try harder, if you listen more, if you never yell at her again, maybe the truck will dissipate the way your dreams vanish when you realize you can’t fly.
Isn’t it curious how in a few slow moments everything can crystallize into who you are, what you’re meant to be? Not quite like slow motion but almost, as if one frame in every three has been removed.
When you were six, you performed in a recital. You don’t remember arriving at the theater or returning home later; as in a dream, sometimes all you know is that you are there. Small for your age and pudgy, you felt like a rotund bloated porcupine in your silver-prickled tutu, rustling for a laughing audience, unsure of what it was you were supposed to be doing. Yet you must have known the routine, because you don’t recall forgetting it, and at one point you saw yourself lying on the hard wooden floor, trying to do sit-ups. You were only six, but this much you knew: This was not ballet. You saw your mother sitting in the balcony, hands clasped in her lap, lips twisted in that awful curl. It is your first recollection of that kind of shame.
You, on the other hand, are a good mother.
When Melanie was five months old, you slipped on a patch of ice. You were coming up the front steps, baby in one arm, groceries in the other. You released the bag without thinking and landed on your back. Legs toward to the door, baby on your chest, you watched as one by one a dozen grade-A eggs rolled by your eyes, smashing on the concrete below.
Still, do you ever wonder what you would do if your child fell a hundred feet down into a well and you had only a moment to think? Would you hesitate, or would you jump in after her, knowing that even though there was plenty of water at the bottom and you probably wouldn’t shatter, there was no way back up? Imagine the icy plunge; imagine the blind swiping at the dark water. If in an instant you realized that all you could do was jump and swipe and every few moments come up from the depth for air, would you still do it?
Melanie was born two months early and there were complications. For six weeks after you were released from the hospital, you made the daily trek back to watch her lying in the incubator, her hands like dots, her beet-red face as small as your fist, and gradually, like one of those old Polaroids developing before your eyes, she assumed a form you recognized. On the day you took her home, eight weeks after the hysterectomy, Sam brought home a coffee table made of chrome and mirrors. You thought that if there was a hell you’d be looking into its chasm, and you were afraid you’d see your face rising up to greet you. It was then you made your first bargain with God: You get to keep the one thing you want and he gets all the rest. But as soon as you made the agreement, you realized that God doesn’t bargain and you wondered who it was with whom you’d made the deal. You made Sam take the table back to the store. Now here you are again, inching your way closer to the edge where the mirror meets your soul, wondering who will be there to catch you when you fall. If you keep your end of the bargain, will he keep his?