Her preparation nearly complete, I turn to my instrument tray and remove the bouquet of morning glories from their wax paper and transfer them to a jug of water. Years ago when I started my own garden, the book I turned to was Natures Bounty: The Care, Keeping, and Meaning of Flowers. In addition to advising the novice gardener about natural compost and the buoyancy of evergreens in winter, it listed a variety of plants and their significance. So for the old woman, morning glories (affection upon departure). It seems an appropriate choice given her familys devotion.
I wash my hands a final time before turning off the lights; she wont mind the darkness. I take the stairs up to ground level, where the bodies are waked, leaving behind concrete slabs and glaring lights for ambient rooms filled with leather sofas and demure tissue boxes. Its a purgatory of sorts for the grief-stricken to gather and whisper their regrets to the dead and each other.
It will be empty now. Linus buried a middle-aged father of three this morning, and the old woman isnt to be waked until tomorrow afternoon. I begin to imagine the cup of tea Ill make in the cottage Linus leases me, hidden behind the wisteria-covered (cordial welcome) trellis that divides my life from this Victorian funeral parlor. Linus lives even closer. He and Alma share the two floors above the business; they have no trellis, no desire to keep away the dead. Looking around the parlors sitting room, I sense something odd. But theres nothing amiss here; its all the familiar colors from the palette Alma chose for their own living quarters: chocolate leather sofas, burgundy wingbacks, and creamy wainscoting peppered with brushed brass switch plates. I suppose it makes sense, their living among the dead.
I head to the entrance door and place my hand on the knob, eager for natural light upon my face, but stop when I notice something startle behind an abundance of calla lilies (modesty) on the foyer table. Its a little girl.
She runs one finger along the end table, a wisp of hair hiding her eyes. Shes no more than eight, slight, and alone.
Hello? I say.
She flinches, looks toward me, but doesnt speak.
Wheres your father? I ask.
She pauses and then raises a finger tucked beneath a faded pink sleeve, pressing it to her chest. Me?
I check to see if anyone else is in the room. Are you here with your father? Did he bring your grandmothers dress?
She glances around before shaking her head.
Who are you with?
She gives me her back and begins to walk away. Im reminded of the dozens of children whove passed through here, too stunned by events to be coherent, to be mindful of their elders - sins my grandmother would have forgiven with her boars-hair brush.
Wait, I call.
The girl becomes motionless. I peer around the corner to Linuss office, but the door at the end of the hall is closed. Is your family talking to Mr. Bartholomew?
The big guy? She looks off as she says this. Her profile is quite lovely and I wonder what its like, to be pretty.
Yes, I answer. Theres a slight shift in her expression - a sense of relief, of recognition? I cant be certain. Her eyes dart in and out behind those wisps.
He always wears sweaters?
Her skin appears oddly yellow under these forty-watt bulbs, or maybe its lost the sun-kissed luster of summer, become sallow the way mine does during New Englands waning autumn months and then blanched a dusky hue in the endless stretch of winter. Even her legs, bare beneath a denim skirt, have an odd pallor. When she speaks, I cant help but stare at the gap between her two front teeth, the way her tongue catches in that space. Her hair, dark and fine, hangs in long curly spirals to her waist. I wonder if she cries when her mother combs it.
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