I hardly took any time off after Ethan died-just the three allowed bereavement days and the two sick days I'd accrued. Coworkers stopped by my cube and asked, "How are you doing?" I wanted to tell them not to worry; my husband was only out of town, maybe at a trade show. He'd be back.
Ethan's presence in our house was palpable, his loafers and sneakers lined up in the closet and his Smithsonian and Wired magazines still arriving every month. But all too soon floury dust coated Ethan's shoes, and his toothbrush grew dry and hard in the cup on the sink, and his pile of unread magazines toppled over.
People stopped saying, "How are you doing?" and Lara started assigning the black diamond projects again. This damn patch.
Lara whistles into my cube now. "Don't bother with a press release," she says, looking over my shoulder at my keyboard, hands on little StairMaster hips, blond hair pulled into a high, tight ponytail.
"Just get a story. Call The Wall Street Journal." I cower at the keyboard, thinking of the leak underneath my house. A few weeks ago a plumber in coveralls crawled through a trapdoor in the front hall closet and reported that it would cost $2,000 to repair the leak and install a sump pump. Money I don't have right now. "You folks need a pump," he said. "It's just me," I told him.
If you reach behind the coats and lift the slab of wood, you can see the black puddle, which smells like iron. My car would like a piece of my paycheck now, too. It's been making a grinding noise and pulling to the right, as though it would rather drive through the trees.
"Okay? Okay?" says Lara. Although she's only five-three, she somehow manages to tower over people.
"Okay." I flip slowly through the Rolodex on my desk. Later, when I can breathe, I'll tell her about the Herald story. She huffs a sigh of exasperation and leaves me in a pit of Willy Loman cold-call despair.
On my way home from work that night, I get in an accident: I'm broadsided by the holidays. It happens when I stroll into Safeway and see the rows of tables by the door stacked high with Halloween candy: Milky Way, Kit Kat, Butterfinger. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Stop, turn, run! I try to shove my cart toward produce, but it won't go. One stubborn wheel tugs like an undertow toward the candy. I kick the cart and focus on my shopping list: eggs, milk, ice cream.
I make it safely to produce, but there the pumpkins lurk. Look! they shout. The holidays are coming! I spot the bunches of brown corn you can hang on your door and the tiny gourds-the bumpy acne ones and the clown-striped green-and-yellow ones. I lean into the cart for support. How can a place called Safeway seem so dangerous?
Last Halloween Ethan and I took Simone, the daughter of my college girlfriend, Ruth, trick-or-treating. Ethan dressed up as Yellow Man, his own made-up superhero. He wore a yellow T-shirt, yellow rubber gloves, and a yellow rain poncho for a cape. He made Simone laugh so hard, she choked on a Gummi Bear.
I remember the yellow yarn dust mop bobby-pinned to his head. I remember his hair-the sweet, almost eggy smell of Flex shampoo. Beautiful hair! Thick, straight, shiny, and brown. The hair I always dreamed of having instead of my wiry curls. Sometimes a Dennis the Menace piece stuck straight up on top of Ethan's head, which is probably why he got carded. He was thrown together in a boyish way-baseball caps and too-big sweatshirts, Converse sneakers with no socks, dirt on his knees from crawling around in the backyard looking for his Frisbee. Why did I ever sign that paper to have him cremated? That's what he wanted. To have his ashes spread at Half Moon Bay, where we went for our honeymoon.
It made sense at the time. But now there isn't even a grave to visit. How can I be a widow when there's no grave? "Miss?" A clerk clutching a bunch of basil stands beside me. "Are you okay?"
From Good Grief by Lolly Winston. Copyright © 2004 by Lolly Winston
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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