They pulled Leona away from Ted’s open casket and accused her in loud angry whispers of laughing during her husband’s viewing. Leona’s cardigan was bunched up against the seat of the wheelchair where they had dumped her in their haste, and the cord to her oxygen tank was twisted. She felt light headed. Maybe that was why she had been laughing, she said, too much oxygen. Her youngest son Quentin was red in the face. He was embarrassed by her behavior and this made her sorry. He in turn expressed concern for her. It was often this way between them. Was she feeling all right? Did she need anything?
Yes, she needed Ted back. What was that ridiculous prettified zombie doing in Ted’s casket? She said. Rouge and lipstick, is that what the embalmers had put on his face?
Lipstick. Harriet, her brother-in-law Dick’s wife was trying to put lipstick on her now. They didn’t listen to what she was saying. They wanted to make her presentable and take her back into the viewing.
Dick had been complaining about the rain. “It doesn’t rain the way it used to. Now it pours and the water runs off the ground. You dig down three feet and it’s still scrabble.” What’s the world coming to? But Dick had been saying that, in one way or another, for fifty years. If it wasn’t the rain, it was Leona. The woman is loco. Dick was right, she was loco: she had laughed when she and Quentin were standing at the casket for their final goodbyes to Ted. She had taken just one iota too far her natural ability to find the humor in dire situations.
Ted’s final illness had lasted close to five years. There was no known cause, so the doctor said. Small things made large. Personal attrition. Or, possibly, he thought it was his turn. When he retired from active duty, he’d taken a desk job and turned into an automaton, living in the shadow of his previous life. At bridge parties with their Navy friends, Ted’s conversation was about past events from his active duty days. He never spoke in the present tense. At home, he sat in front of the television set with the remote in his hand, switching channels. For two hours, that’s what he did, switch channels. Then he went to bed.
* * *
Ted could be vengeful, as she had been. It wasn’t their way to talk about things. Like two children they acted on their feelings with behaviors. Besides, who could assess the value of talk in a marriage? When a gesture is so caustic as to burn into the texture of memory, how can any amount of talk remove the imprint?
It had been a long haul, as Ted used to say.
Ted was a black Irishman: he had coarse, straight black hair and heavy black brows; deep-set eyes — black, appearing diffuse in soft light.
He didn’t have a willing smile. They had stormy times, slow freezes, days without speaking. Leona stood her ground: she didn’t try to please.
She saw no reason to do so now.
She got up and out of the wheelchair and unhooked herself from the oxygen. “I’ll be at the house,” she said.
Harriet still had the lipstick in her hand and Dick’s mouth was open wide enough to catch flies. (Ted would have said that; he had his favorite expressions.) Quentin was holding the back of the wheelchair, surprised that it was empty.
Leona walked the four blocks home with difficulty. It was a hot June afternoon on Main Street and the privet bushes were blooming, white, and too sweet-smelling for her preference.
She was a widow now. The back door creaked as always, despite this new fact about her life. Covered dishes of fancy desserts stood on the kitchen counters, dishes prepared by the wives in advance so each could arrive coiffed and ornamented, but unencumbered, on her husband’s arm. The smell of the desserts made Leona tired. The desserts were sweetened with Splenda in deference to the diabetics on both sides of her family. “Potato famine Irish,” they called themselves, referring to the great 1840s wave of Irish immigration and the genetic strain of diabetes that persisted in their family. She imagined the bitter aftertaste of that chemical in the pineapple upside-down cake and key lime pie that were sure to be under the plastic wrappers.
Leona walked through the kitchen to the living room, leaving everything just as it was. Let the children and their spouses — Quentin, Mark and Sue and Kate and Phil — let them handle the details. She planned to rest now. And she sat down in the recliner chair, tipping herself back into a prone position. The room was dim because the shrubs outside had become thick and tall, blocking out almost all the morning sunlight from the east-facing front windows. Ted, who disliked change, had objected to her plans to have the shrubs pruned radically or even removed. Now that Ted was gone, nothing need stop her from proceeding with her plans to let in the sunlight once again.
Leona closed her eyes and tried to suppose how that might be possible, metaphorically speaking. But Ted’s light had gone out of her life long ago so why would it be different now? Might she consider letting in the sunlight of the spirit instead of looking to the darkness of her soul? Where had she traveled in these last two days since Ted’s death?
Her lungs were cramped; she couldn’t breathe. The feeling passed, and with it, the thought that this might be all right, it might be what she wanted. She would not now, however, consider the possibility that without the added oxygen her lungs would eventually give out.
It was only minutes before they came in, all talking at once, rushing around to hook her up to the oxygen. Harriet tried to wipe her eyes and she pulled away. “I am not crying, if that’s what you think I have leaky tear ducts…I would really appreciate it if you would all just leave me alone.”
“Mom, Bethany is here.”
Quentin said this as though Bethany were St. Joan when in fact she was only his fiancée. Bethany was all pink and white skin and light brown hair, bright blue eyes, and the fly-away sheen of youth.
“Grand. Thank you, Bethany, for helping out. And now, if you’ll all just excuse me…”
The voices retreated but Leona took the precaution of closing her eyes in case they came back to check on her. It was tough getting a minute to yourself. She was finally satisfied that they meant to leave her alone while they sat in the kitchen and discussed whatever it was they were discussing, which didn’t at all interest her. Other people didn’t much interest her anymore. But she imagined pretty Bethany in there with them, busying herself with preparations for the wake, setting out china and silverware from the breakfront and cabinets. Quentin would have shown her, whispering, where everything was. Soon these things would be hers and she, Bethany, would be the lady of the house. Quentin, whose face was handsome when not red and worried, would transfer his worry from Leona to Bethany.
In her wheelchair, Leona rolled out onto the glassed-in back porch for some air. She could see the dark clouds that had blown up in the sky, separated by bright blue sky. The weather report for the afternoon had been “turning sharply colder” and already Leona could feel the skin on her bare arms prickling as if the cold air had blown through the glass. June and September could be unsteady weather-wise. These were pivotal months, the weatherman had pointed out in his summary. And for her, too, it was an unsteady time, a time of change. She thought of the fox, which, in September would change its color from red to gray, and of the ermine, which would change from brown to white.
Ted hated change. If the prospect of cutting down the front shrubs was intolerable, the fact of retirement from active duty to a desk job was truly the end of the world. And the job itself was deadly. But he did it with the same thoroughness and efficiency that he did any task, however trivial. He always said to the children when they were growing up: “Any job that’s worth doing is worth doing well.” They called him “Sir,” almost until the time of his death. They would have called her “Ma’am” if she’d required it, poor dears. Ted was a task master. But the job was beneath him; it didn’t use his talents. He was lost in the bureaucracy. He withered and, at last, sickened and died. Or didn’t even sicken, just withered. Unless you could say that he became sick of life and died of that sickness.
In her mood, Leona was already pivoting from hope to lack of it and back again, feeling less grounded than she could have thought possible. That was the trouble with those of us, she reflected, who wavered in faith, we lose our guide wires. If we can only follow the simple precepts, beginning with our absolute safety in God’s love. You set your moral compass by these points and go forward from there. Why always be looking for a portal to some alternate system of thought?
And where did she get these unaccustomed words but from her pastor’s last sermon? He was forward-looking, fortiesh, and perhaps too eager to embrace the thoughts of the younger crowd. What Leona liked about him was that no matter how tangled up he got in the language of today, he always returned to the foundations of the Catholic faith. Most of all what she liked was that his understanding of these foundations was broad enough to include private renegades like Leona, whose interpretation of the faith was not always synonymous with his.
In fact she didn’t always know what her interpretation was because it changed every day, with every devotion she made. This, she felt, was what had kept her faith alive. Up until now, and now it hardly mattered. Or it mattered more than ever. She couldn’t say for sure. What she did know was that her pastor would be of no use to her today, even though he would of course be among the guests at the wake.
She was having trouble thinking. Ever since the central air conditioning had been installed, it made a low hum when turned on, like white noise. This was convenient if you wanted to screen out street noise. But it also screened out the sound of birds singing and children playing — all the pleasant sounds. You kept the windows closed against the heat. So for Leona, who had grown up with the sounds and smells of summer, air conditioning was comfortable but dull, a dullness that affected her state of mind.
During Ted’s illness, she often thought ahead to his death with relief, visualizing her freedom. But she wasn’t free. The wheelchair and oxygen were not her impediment. It was, instead, loss.
* * *
Leona had the sensation unexpectedly of Ted’s presence around her. She was in the living room, where he’d spent so much of his time in front of the television set. It was eerie but she wanted to keep him there. Thinking of how to do so she rolled to her desk and unlocked a rarely opened drawer with the key she stored in one of the little cupboards above the pull-out writing tray. She didn’t do this lightly: in the drawer was her private photo album, so private she almost kept it from herself. The family pictures for everyone else to look at were in embellished frames on the grand piano, including the formal wedding picture, hers and Ted’s, in which she wore her bride’s satin and lace, and Ted his Navy dress uniform. She thought of the photos in the album as her own because she still thought of Ted as hers then. The way he turned from her after that was sudden, between one day and the next.
She stopped herself from thinking of this because she didn’t want Ted’s presence to leave her, but there was Bethany, with coffee on a tray, intruding on Leona, who had the photo album open on her lap. Bethany had filled the china sugar cup and the creamer, and set out ginger cookies on a scalloped-edged plate. Leona noted Bethany’s competence but didn’t compliment or even thank her. Instead, she ate the cookies greedily, allowing large-sized crumbs to fall from her mouth. This she saw as the beginning of her transition from lady of the house to revered but misanthropic mother-in-law who unfortunately still lived there. Not bothering to scoop the crumbs into her cupped hand and dump them discreetly onto the tray, she brushed them from her lap to the floor. They spread around the wheels of the chair like bird feed.
“You’re finding everything all right?” she said, mouth still full.
Bethany nodded, of course she had, and pointed at the photo album.
“Family pictures?” she said.
“Just some old ones. Not to show,” Leona said.
It was Provincetown, her time and Ted’s. Leona had parked the five children with their two grandmothers, parceling them out, so that she and Ted could have the time alone together. This had been only partially successful, considering Ted’s moods and the northeaster that had consumed three days and two nights in the rented cottage. Ted had sulked, complaining that the children should not have been barred from a trip to the ocean, then exulted in the pleasures of life without them — long saltwater swims and time to lie undisturbed on the sand, skin drying off in the sun. But then he chafed at being cooped inside in the rain, with the wind tearing at the cottage windows and downing trees on the road. The electricity went out; the plumbing backed up; life became trying. Leona was unfazed, but Ted was irked and querulous.
“Really? I’d like to see anyway,” Bethany said.
“Oh, sure then,” Leona said, hoping the naked ones would shock her.
Bethany paged through the album, looking up before she reached the risqué pages.
“You were absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, Leona,” she said.
“Compared to now, yes, I guess I was —“
“— Compared to anything!”
“You’re nice to say so, thank you, not that it’s relevant to anything at this point —“
“— No, really.”
“…I’ll take that now, Bethany, you must have something to do in the kitchen and I need to close my eyes for a bit until they come.”
“Oh, right, sorry. Can I get you anything else?”
Leona waved her away, holding the album close to her chest and thinking that it was, rightfully, for Ted’s eyes only.
But that was a fantasy of the kind that belonged with the photos in the embellished frames on the piano. Ted didn’t want to see her anymore, with or without her clothes on, when the children got older and they could have really enjoyed each other. Leona thought having sex would be celebratory the night after Quentin, the last child, left home. But Ted had turned his face away from her mouth and removed her body from on top of his as if it had been an unwanted weight. She hid in the bathroom for an hour with her magnifying hand mirror, inspecting her face, throat, shoulders, and breasts for loosening flesh. And in the morning, Ted drank his coffee hot and black as usual, but without speaking to her. By afternoon, she’d consumed a pint of vodka and a pack of cigarettes. When he got home, she was spread-eagle on their bed, snoring. He stomped noisily to the guest bedroom. This became their pattern.
Her pastor at the time never got her name right, calling her Lorraine or Lenora or Laura. But he knew the names of birds. He told her what birds frequented the area, describing in detail their coloring and markings. He gave her the phone number of another parishioner who led bird walks. Leona left the church confused, but she called the number and went on a bird walk, found she liked tracking birds, and soon became absorbed in bird watching herself. Her drinking and smoking diminished, and fell off altogether.
She cleaned out her closet and took her clothes, with the comforter from the bed, to the dry cleaner to get the smell of cigarette smoke off them. She hired a cleaning woman for a day and worked with her. They opened all the windows to air the house. It was September and a cool west wind was blowing down from the mountains. That evening when Ted came home, he sat at the television, switching channels as always. At bedtime, he went upstairs to the guest room. Leona followed him. He turned in the doorway and looked at her.
“Ted,” she said.
“Did you want something?”
“Won’t you come back to our room?” she said.
“I’m comfortable in here,” he said.
She went into the bedroom and lay down on the freshly made bed, fully dressed, with her shoes on. She fell asleep that way and in the morning, the white comforter was dirty from mud on her shoes.
Some weeks later, the same parishioner who led bird walks mentioned to Leona how kind it was of her husband to befriend the man in the wheelchair.
“I don’t know who you mean,” Leona said.
“Oh, sorry. Herbert — the paraplegic.”
“I didn’t know my husband was befriending Herbert, the paraplegic, but I’m sure it’s very kind of him indeed,” Leona said.
“Oh, it is. He helps Herbert in and out of his car and even drives him to pretty places for the view.”
“Really. I’m so glad to hear it. Ted, of course, is a good Christian,” Leona said.
That was her last outing with the parishioner who led bird walks.
* * *
Bethany came in again, smelling of soap and general cleanliness. She said she had something on her mind, if she could be honest about a matter regarding Quentin. It had been on her mind since his father’s death and now, if she could confide in Leona…
“I’m not sure if I can help you, Bethany. You realize, certainly, that Quentin confides in me, too.”
Leona was surprised at how boring Bethany seemed to her, boring and clean, and how little she, Leona, wanted to play the role of mother-in-law — or even, now, of mother.
“— It’s, do you think, well, I wondered if Quentin might be conflicted about his, well, his sexuality —“
“— He’s having a problem? Now? Of course he is! It’s his father’s death, the shock, that’s all it is — the shock, obviously. Give him some time to cope….”
Bethany sat forward in her chair. It must have been a trick of the light that made her soft, babyish features coalesce into a more pronounced image as she spoke. Everything else, the end tables, sofas, the lamps and pictures and chairs and antique sewing machine, also, became clearer, as though the lights had been on a dimmer and turned up to full strength.
Bethany said, “Quentin has a problem. He’s gay, Leona, and I’m not going to marry him.”
Leona anticipated the family arriving. She thought above all of the SUVs and pickup trucks sweating in the still-hot driveway like race horses cooling down after being led in off the track.
She said, “Bethany, you’re out of your mind. Quentin is no more a homosexual than my husband was!”
“Well, and there you have it,” Bethany said.
The guests came in, the people and noise and bustle were all around, with the food and drink, the clatter of shoes in the hallway, voices and laughter, movement, and the occasional tears from someone who remembered Ted in a particular fragment from his or her own life, usually a confused memory that was hardly real but something someone — a parent or uncle or grandmother had related to them.
Bethany’s remark, although it was fresh, took on the same warped shape in Leona’s mind as those memories. Like wallpaper or furniture, it was around for years and you ignored it. Then someone brought it to your attention and it became pressing.
Leona looked around the room for Bethany and, not seeing her, rolled into the kitchen. Bethany was expertly replenishing a platter of sandwiches, arranging the sandwich quarters so that they were stacked against each other invitingly, while chatting with one of the young wives about something uninteresting like diaper rash. Bethany had been a babysitter throughout her teenage years which, Leona calculated, were not all that long ago.
“—Bethany, dear —am I interrupting? Could we chat when you’re finished with that?”
Of course they could, Bethany said, as the wife took the platter from her hands. She was going back in anyway, the wife said. And Bethany pulled a kitchen chair out from the table so she could be level with Leona’s eyes.
“Is something wrong —?” Bethany said.
“— No, oh no. I just wanted to tell you what was on my mind — you know, following our conversation, kind of a postscript, Bethany…”
Leona paused importantly.
“…What I wanted to tell you, Bethany, is that you have no right to say one word about my late husband —“
“—But I didn’t —“
“—Not one word, but you implied, and what you implied is bogus, absolutely bogus —“
“— I’m sorry, Leona, but I —“
“— What you are, Bethany, is a self-satisfied little bitch, plain and simple,” Leona said.
She rolled out of the kitchen and back into the living room, passing the hall table on the way, where she retrieved her handbag and tucked it out of view under a table at one end of a sofa.
Then Leona made the rounds of her relatives, conversing with each of them and graciously accepting their condolences. She made sure that everyone had refreshments, that new girlfriends or boyfriends of younger relatives were introduced around, that the children were looked after by the teenagers, and that, in general, things went smoothly. People commented that Leona was as charming as ever, despite her husband’s sad passing.
Bethany went into a huddle with Quentin in an upstairs bedroom and then made an early exit from the wake. Mark, Quentin’s older brother, joined Quentin upstairs for a long talk. When Quentin rejoined the group, his face was pale and angry. The men put an arm around his shoulder. The women patted his hand. Everyone assumed it was grief.
After she had made her rounds, Leona sat, queenly, for her final afternoon as hostess of a party in her home. She didn’t notice Bethany’s absence, or that earlier Bethany and Quentin had been gone longer than it took to greet the arriving guests or serve around the food, or that Mark had then been out of sight as well as Quentin. Leona took her duties seriously when she was willing to apply herself, as she was now. The finality of the occasion awed her.
Leona was so absorbed in this idea that she was shocked when Quentin sat down on the sofa near where she’d parked her wheelchair and told her that Bethany had broken off their engagement.
“But why?” Leona said.
“She says we’re headed in different directions.”
“That’s not exactly crystal clear.”
“That’s what I told her,” Quentin said.
“Maybe you should ask her for an explanation.”
“She also said something about marrying into a family where there’s bad blood. She said I should ask you about that, Mom.”
“What, Mom. You’re thinking about something else.”
“Yes. Yes, I am, as a matter of fact. This is your father’s wake, Quentin.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. We can talk about this another time.”
“Please. If you don’t mind, dear. Thank you.”
But when Quentin got up, Leona put her hand on his arm. “Wait,” she said.
“What is it, Mom? Is something wrong?”
Already he was worried.
“Not at all — in fact, I’m relieved about what you told me. You’re well out of it, I think, Quentin. She’s trouble, dear.”
“Why do you say that, Mom?”
“You’ll have to trust me on this —“
“— But Mom —“
They were interrupted by Quentin’s cousin, a doctor, who had been delayed in surgery but was there with his wife to pay their respects to Leona and her family on this sad occasion….
Ted’s brother Lawrence raised a glass and made a toast in memory of Ted. Other toasts were made, Leona was honored, and more food and drink were consumed. The pastor talked earnestly with Leona, then with each of the children, and with Ted’s siblings, individually. He was a conscientious young man.
* * *
Later, in the press of people, Leona calm and unobserved took out the nose piece from her oxygen tube. She then tapped the full contents — thirty tablets — of her unused prescription for tranquillizers into her palm, swallowed it, and washed it down with her third, just-filled glass of sherry. She neatly placed her uneaten plate of Splenda-sweetened pineapple upside-down cake or key lime pie on an end table. Comfortable in her wheelchair and apparently dozing, she drifted off into her final sleep and was not discovered dead until the crowd had thinned out and the last visitors were leaving.