"Yes." He said miss and not ma'am. Sweet. There are streaks of cranberry red spots on his cheeks, and his nose shines. I try to think of something to say, a vegetable to inquire after. Instead I blurt: "My husband died." Maybe this is the first time I've said this. I'm not sure. I think it is. Suddenly I'm crying, that little-kid gulping kind of crying, where you can't catch your breath. The morning after Ethan died, I resented the mourners collecting in my living room. How could they fall into the role and accept Ethan's death so readily? While they wept and carried on, I cleaned the house.
Scrubbed the shower grout with a toothbrush and Clorox. Now I'm one of the howling mourners. But they've wrapped it up already, moved on.
The clerk touches my elbow and leads me through the big swinging double doors by the coolers with the chicken. He says, "Careful," as we walk up a narrow flight of stairs. There's a leaf of lettuce on one stair. We shuffle into a break room and he seats me at a long brown Formica table. He's probably only in high school or junior college. He sets a cup of tea and a box of tissues on the table. "You take your time," he says.
I'm suddenly embarrassed and want something to do to look busy. I grab one of the tissues and begin cleaning my glasses. Okay, so Ethan isn't coming back. The sympathy cards reverted to phone bills months ago. Even telemarketers have stopped asking for him.
Oh! The tissues have lotion for sore noses, and the lenses of my glasses now look as though they've been dunked in salad dressing. The room is blurry. The boy is gone. The holidays are coming. Can I stay in this break room until after New Year's?
At home the phone rings as I'm peeling off my coat. I let the machine pick up.
"Hello? Sophie?...Dear? Are you there?" It's my mother-in-law, Marion, who's not really comfortable around answering machines, VCRs, and other newfangled devices. She clears her throat.
"Well, I'm calling for two reasons. One, there's a sale at Talbot's, and I'd like to take you to buy a few new things. I thought that might cheer you up." Marion always seems to wish I'd shop at Talbot's, that I'd dress more like a country club wife than a frumpy neo-hippie-frayed jeans and clogs and my husband's too big sweaters. Once in a while Marion wears jeans, "dungarees," she calls them, but she irons stiff creases in the legs that stand up like little tents. "The other thing is, dear, I'd like to make a date to come over this Sunday and pack up Ethan's things for the Goodwill. Remember, we talked about that? I really feel it's time, and it'll be a breeze if we work on it together...."
There are no groceries to unload, since I abandoned my cart at Safeway. I head straight for the bedroom and crawl under our king-size quilt, choosing to sleep in my clothes to ward off the icy corners of the bed.
I dream that I run into Ethan in downtown San Jose by the convention center when I'm on my way to the library. His hair glistens like a mink coat and I want to touch it. He's with a policeman. They explain that Ethan's been in a car accident and the officer is trying to help him find his way home. I look down and see the edge of Ethan's hospital gown hanging out from under his parka, the little blue snowflakes on the fabric fluttering in the breeze. I want to tell him that he wasn't in a car accident. He had cancer and now he's dead. But I'm afraid I'll hurt his feelings, like telling someone they could lose a few pounds or their clothes don't match.
When I make it to work the next morning, the Herald is spread across my desk. I'm supposed to read the paper every morning before getting to work, so I'll know if the company has been in the news. I'm also supposed to scan the national press and be up on current health care issues so I can pitch stories relating to our products.
From Good Grief by Lolly Winston. Copyright © 2004 by Lolly Winston
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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