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ISSUE:  Winter 2015

Gosia Herba

My former daughter-in-law is sitting in the next room eating cookies off a plate. Poor thing, she’s a freeloader and can’t manage her own life anywhere in the world. Therefore she’s here. She’s hiding out in this house, for now, believing that she’s a victim. Her name’s Corinne, and she could have been given any sort of name by her parents, but Corinne happens to be the name she got. It’s from the Greek, kore. It means “maiden.” When I was a girl, no one ever called me that—a maiden. The word is obsolete. 

Everyone else under this roof—my son and his second wife (my current daughter-in-law, Astrid) and my two grandchildren—probably wonders what Corinne is doing here. I suppose they’d like her to evaporate into what people call “thin” air. Corinne’s bipolar and a middle-aged ruin: When she looks at you, her vision goes right through your skin and internal organs and comes out on the other side. She mutters to herself, and she gives off a smell of rancid cooking oil. She’s unpresentable. If she tried to go shopping alone at the supermarket, the security people would escort her right back out, that’s how alarming she is. 

The simple explanation for her having taken up residence here is that she appeared at the downtown Minneapolis bus depot last week, having come from Tulsa, where she lived in destitution. She barely had money for bus fare. My son, Wesley, her ex-husband, had to take her in. We all did. However, the more honest explanation for her arrival is that Jesus sent her to me. 

Two weeks ago I was in the shower and felt a lump in my breast. I actually cried out in a moment of fear and panic. Then my Christian faith returned to me, and I understood that I would be all right even though I would die. Jesus would send someone to help me get across into the next world. The person He sent to me was Corinne. I know that this is an unpopular view among young people, but there is a divinity that shapes our ends, and at the root of every explanation is God, and at the root of God is love. 

I go into the room where Corinne resides, knitting a baby thing. I pick up the cookie plate. “Thank you, Dolores,” she says. She gazes at me with her mad-face expression. “Those were delicious. I’ve always loved ginger cookies. Is there anything I can do for you?” she asks. She’s merely being polite. 

“Soon,” I tell her. “Soon there will be.” 

You get old, you think about the past, both the bad and the good. You have time to consider it all. You try to turn even the worst that has happened into a gift. 

For example, my late husband, Mike, Wesley’s father, was killed by the side of the road as he was changing a tire. This was decades ago. He was the only man I ever married. I never had another one, before or after. A rich drunk socialite, a former beauty queen fresh from a night of multiple martinis with her girlfriends, her former sorority sisters, plowed right into him. Then she went on her merry way. Well, no, that’s not quite right. After she hit Mike, my husband’s body was thrown forward into the air, and then she ran over him, both the car’s front and rear tires. Somehow she made her way home with her dented and blood-spattered car, which she parked in the three-car garage before she tiptoed upstairs and undressed and got into bed next to her businessman husband. She clothed herself in her nightgown. She curled up next to him like a good pretty wife. The sleepy husband asked her—this is in the transcripts—how the evening had gone with her girlfriends, if they had had a good time. Why was she shivering? She said the girls had been just fine but she was cold now. She didn’t know that someone had gotten her license-plate number, but somebody had, as her dark-blue Mercedes-Benz sped away. A man out walking his dog on a nearby sidewalk wrote it down. God put him there—the dog, too.

Meanwhile, right after that, the police arrived at our house. I remember first the phone call and then the doorbell that woke my son, Wesley, in the crib that he was beginning to outgrow. He could climb right out of it but rarely did. Wesley began crying upstairs, while in the living room the police, who would not sit down on the sofa, gave me the bad news. My husband, Mike, they told me, was laid out in the morgue, alone, and I would have to identify him the next day. They were quite courteous, those two men, bearing their news. They spoke in low tones, hushed, which is hard for men. One of them wore old-fashioned tortoiseshell glasses. They warned me that I might not recognize my husband right away. But the next morning I did recognize him because of what he was wearing, a blue patterned sport shirt I had bought at Dayton’s on sale and had wrapped up for him at Christmas. He had thanked me with a kiss on the lips Christmas morning after he opened it. “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” was playing on the radio when he did that. So of course I remembered the shirt.

The socialite testified that she didn’t know she had hit anything or anybody. Or that she didn’t remember hitting anything or anybody. There was some question—I heard about this—whether she had asked her stepson to take the rap for her. She wanted him to go straight to police headquarters and to say he had been driving his stepmother’s car, drunk, at the age of seventeen, and therefore he would be tried as a minor and let off scot-free. He wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t lie. The socialite’s out of prison now, but my husband is still under the ground in Lakewood Cemetery.

I await the resurrection of the dead the way other people await weekend football. I’m old now, and the glory will all be revealed to me soon enough. I can feel it coming. Glory will rain down, soaking me to the skin.

If the socialite hadn’t gone to prison, I imagined buying a handgun and going over there to her mansion and shooting her in cold blood if she answered the door. But, no, that’s wrong: I had Wesley to raise, so I don’t suppose I would have actually committed murder, though to kill her was extremely tempting, and the temptation did not come from Satan but from somewhere else inside me. It was mine. I dreamed of murder like a teenager dreaming of love. Peaceful and calm though I usually am, my husband’s death and my wish for revenge changed me. Murder dwelt in my heart. Imagine that! It came as a surprise to me as I did the laundry or cooked dinner or washed dishes. Sometimes I wish I were more Christian: Even now, at my age, with knees that hurt from arthritis and a memory that sometimes fails me, I still think certain people should be wiped off the face of the Earth, which is counter to the teachings of Jesus.

But what I’m saying is that Jesus intervened with me. He came to me one night and said, in that loving way He has, “Dolores, what good would it do if you murdered that foolish woman? It would do you and the world no good at all. It wouldn’t bring Mike back. Turn that cheek,” He said to me as I was praying, and of course I could see He was right. So I forgave that woman, or tried to. On my knees, I turned the other cheek as I wept. I turned it back and forth.

I believe that humanity is divided into two camps: those who have killed others, or can imagine themselves doing so; and those for whom the act and the thought are inconceivable. Looking at me, you would probably not think me capable of murder, but I found that black coal in my soul, and it burned fiercely. I loved having it there.

All my life, I worked as a librarian in the uptown branch. A librarian with the heart of a murderer! No one guessed.

Months after Mike’s death, I’d go into Wesley’s room to tuck him in at night. By then he was talking. “Where’s Daddy?” he would ask me. Gone to heaven, I’d tell him, and he’d ask, “Where’s that?” and I wanted to say, “Right here,” but such an answer would be confusing to a child, so I just hummed a little tune, a lullaby to calm him. But my son knew there was something wrong with my face in those days, because of the hard labor of my grief. I didn’t smile when I put my son to bed, and probably I didn’t smile in the morning, either. I couldn’t smile on my own. So there, at night, in his bed, he would get out from under the sheet, stand up in his rocket-ship-pattern pajamas, and he would raise his hand with his two fingers, the index finger and the middle finger outstretched in a V-for-victory sign. He would raise those fingers to the sides of my mouth, lifting them up, trying to get me to smile. He held his fingers there until I agreed to look cheerful for his sake. He was only a little boy, after all.

Time passes. The socialite, as I said, is out of jail, and Wesley has grown up and has two children of his own, my dear grandchildren, Jeremy and Lucy. Corinne gave birth to Jeremy before she fled the marriage, and Astrid, Wesley’s second wife, gave birth to Lucy. But I still think of that woman, that socialite, driving away from my dying husband, and of what was going through her head, and what I’ve decided is that (1) she couldn’t take responsibility for her actions, and (2) if she did, she would lose the blue Mercedes, and the big house in the suburbs, and the Royal Copenhagen china, and the Waterford crystal, and the swimming pool in back, and the health-club membership, and the closet full of Manolo Blahnik shoes. All the money in the bank, boiling with possibility, she’d lose all that, and the equities upping and downing on the stock exchange. How she was invested! How she must have loved her things, as we all do. God has a name for this love: avarice. We Americans are running a laboratory for it, and we are the mice and rats, being tested, to see how much of it we can stand. 

God’s son despised riches. His contempt for riches sprouts everywhere in the Gospels. He believed that riches were distractions. Listen to Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If that isn’t wisdom, I don’t know what is. And remember this, about those who are cursed? “For I was hungry, and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me.”

Anyway, that’s why Corinne is here. We have to feed and clothe her. Jesus doesn’t believe in those glittering objects that hypnotize you. Hypnotized, you drive away from a dying man stretched out bleeding on the pavement.

I go into Corinne’s room. She sits near the window with sunlight streaming in on her hair, which looks greasy, and she’s talking before she even sees me. Apparently she’s psychic and knows I’m coming. Since I’m not about to waste a beautiful morning like this one by brooding about breast cancer, I ask her, “Do you want to take a walk?” The question interrupts her monologue. “I’ve got to exercise these old bones,” I tell her. Actually, I’m not that old. I’m in my seventies. It’s just an expression.

She’s gesticulating and carrying on a private conversation and seems to be very busy. Finally she says, “No, I don’t think so.”

“My joints hurt,” I tell her. “I need some fresh air. And I need company.” Craftily, I say to her, “Without a companion, I might fall down. I might not get back up. You never know.”

“Oh, all right,” she says, her nursing instinct rising to one of her many surfaces. Even crazy people want to help out. “Oh all right all right all right.” She puts on a pair of tennis shoes that Wesley bought for her yesterday, and we set out into the residential Minneapolis autumn, with me slightly ahead of her so that I don’t have to smell her. Has she forgotten how to bathe? She’s had opportunities here, bathtubs, showers, and soap—running water, both hot and cold. We amble down toward Lake Calhoun. Out on the blue waters of the lake, some brave fellow has one of those sailboard things and is streaking across the surface like a human water bug. Here onshore, the wind agitates the fallen leaves, whipping them around. It’s October. My hips are giving me trouble today, and of course the lump in my right breast still remains there, patiently hatching.

“Do you think of the past?” she asks me. “I do. I wanted to call you on the telephone, you know,” Corinne tells me, suddenly lucid, “once I moved away, after Jeremy was born. All those years ago. But I couldn’t. I was a mess. I was ashamed of myself. I’m a heap of sorry.”

“Oh, I didn’t mind,” I say, before I realize that she might misunderstand me. “We thought you were in a state.” Then she tells me that she suffered panic attacks as a young mom—did I remember this? Of course I did—and that all she could do was escape from here, from the marriage and the child and the house. It’s her old story. She repeats it all the time. Contrition is a habit with her now.

“Nature tricked me,” she says. “I gave birth to a baby boy, and I didn’t love him, and I was so ashamed of myself that I left town. I went to work in Tulsa in an emergency room,” she says, knowing I know all this, “and I worked there for years, and the people came in night after night, and, Dolores, you can’t imagine these poor people, knifed and shot and slashed and choked. Their hands were broken and their mouths were bloody and bullet holes pierced them, and some of them had been poisoned, and the rest of them were bent over and groaning, and you know what happened then?”

“You forgave yourself?” I ask. I wish she would change the topic. I wish she wouldn’t dwell on any of this. She doesn’t know I’m capable of murder.

“No. I lived with it. I saw things. I heard things. I got bloodied with the blood of strangers all over me. People screamed right into my face from pain and confusion. I saw a woman whose boyfriend had forced her mouth open and made her swallow poison. A person shouldn’t see such terribleness. Her stomach had started to burn away before we got to her. When the police questioned the boyfriend, he said that she had told him to go fuck himself and that no woman was going to speak to him that way without consequences. So he did what he did. A manly thing to do. He had her name tattooed on his arm. With a heart! She survived that time, somehow. Two months later he killed her with a knife while she was sleeping. At least he was done away with in prison, later on, stabbed in turn. I think they call that karma. Thank goodness!”

By now we have made our way to 36th and to the fence surrounding the cemetery, whereupon Corinne loses her train of thought, as she does in all the subsequent walks we take together. When she collects her thoughts, she says, out of nowhere, “I hate them.”

“Who?” I ask. 

“Capitalists,” she says, and suddenly I’m not following her. “They’ve made my life miserable. They’ve made me a crazy person. You can talk about the victims of communism all you want, but as a woman I’m a victim of capitalism, because did I tell you how they took away my pension? I had a pension, and they gave it to investors and the investors invested the money in bogus real estate and bundled something or others, and so I ended up with nothing, bereft, broke, a ruined person, no pension, plus I was crazy and alone, and meanwhile the capitalists were accumulating everything and coming after me in their suits. Have you ever seen how they live? It’s comical.”

“I agree with you, Corinne,” I tell her, because I do. By now we are inside the cemetery, and we stop, because overhead in the sunlight a bird is singing, a song sparrow. We walk on quietly until we come to my husband, Mike’s resting place.

Michael Erickson

Next to him is the space in the sacred ground where I’ll be casketed in a couple of years. I love this cemetery. I do. I come here often. It’s so quiet here under the balding blue sky with its wisps of white hair, and as we’re looking down at the grass and the leaves, serenaded by the song sparrows, Corinne falls to her knees, smelly as she still is, a human wreck. She mumbles a prayer. “Wesley’s daddy,” my former daughter-in-law cries out, “God bless him, rest in peace, forever and ever and ever.” She’s so vehement, she sounds Irish. 

This is how I know she’ll take care of me once I’m incapacitated. Slowly, on my bad knees, I get down too. How lovely is her madness to me now.

We get back to the house, and that night the capitalism theme starts up again at the dinner table. We seem to be a household of revolutionaries. This time it comes from Jeremy, who, before dinner, walks into the kitchen barefoot, holding his iPhone. I am sitting, drinking tea. He’s sixteen or seventeen, I can’t remember which. Usually he and I talk about space aliens, and I pretend they exist to humor him and bring him around eventually to Jesus, but tonight he’s looking at something else. He’s wearing his Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, and I notice that he’s growing a mustache and succeeding with it this time.

“I can’t fucking believe it,” he says to me. I don’t mind his use of obscenity. Really, I don’t. It tickles me, I can’t say why. “Grandma Dee, do you like elephants?”

“I like them very much,” I say. “Though I’ve never known any one of them personally.” We’re seated at the kitchen table. Astrid is making dinner, Wesley is in the garage doing something or other, and Corinne is upstairs cooing in front of the TV set. I don’t know where Lucy is—reading somewhere in the house, I expect. “They are among the greatest of God’s creatures,” I say.
“I understand that they mourn their dead.”

“So look at this fucking thing,” he says, pointing at the little phone screen. 

“It’s too small. I can’t see it.”

“Want me to read it?” he asks. What a handsome young man he is. I enjoy his company. It’s so easy to love a grandchild, there’s no effort to it at all. Besides, his face reminds me of my late husband’s face just a little.

“Sure,” I say.

“Well, see, the thing is, it’s about elephants being killed and like that.”

“What about them?” Astrid asks, from over by the stove. “Killed how?”

“Okay, so in Zimbabwe, which I know where it is because we’ve studied it in geography, anyway what this says, this article, is, they’ve been, these people, these Zimbabweans, putting cyanide into the water holes in this, like, huge park, to kill the elephants. And these fuckers have access, I guess, to industrial cyanide that they use in gold mining—”

“Jeremy, please watch your language,” Astrid says demurely. She’s dicing tomatoes now.

“And they’ve been, I mean the poisoned water hole has been, like, killing the little animals, the cheetahs, and then the vultures, that eat the cheetahs once they’re dead, so it’s, like, this total outdoor death-palace eatery, but mostly the cyanide in the water holes has been killing the elephants.” He gazes at me as if I’m to blame. I’m old. I understand: Old people are responsible for everything. “Which are harmless?”

“Why’ve they been doing that?” I ask.

“Killing elephants? For the ivory. They have, like, tusks.”

“How many elephants,” I ask, “did they do this to?”

“It says here eighty,” Jeremy tells me. “Eighty dead elephants poisoned by cyanide lying in dead-elephant piles. Jesus, I hate people sometimes.”

“Yes,” I say. “That’s fair.”

“What do you suppose they do with all that ivory?” Astrid asks, stirring a sauce.

“For carvings,” I say. “They carve little Buddhas. They kill the elephants and carve the happy Buddha. Then they sell the happy Buddha to Americans. The little ivory Buddha goes in the lighted display case.”

“That is so wrong,” Jeremy says. “People are fucking sick. These elephants are more human, for fuck’s sake, than the humans.”

“It’s the avarice,” I say.

“It’s the what?” he asks.

“Another word for greed. Go ask Corinne,” I tell him. “She’s upstairs, watching TV. She doesn’t like it, either. She sounds like you.”

“I still hate her,” he says. “I can’t talk to her yet. It’s my policy. She just wasn’t—”

“I know, I know,” I say. “The policy is understandable. You’ll just have to give it up eventually, sweetie.”

“You can’t tell me that it’s no biggie because it was a biggie. If that wasn’t a biggie, leaving my dad and you to take care of me, then nothing is big, you know?”

“Yes,” I say. “I understand. For now.”

“Jeremy,” Astrid pipes up from the stove, “where’s your father?”

“Him? He’s out in the garage. He’s working on the truck or something. I heard him drop his wrench and swear a minute ago. There are too many of them in the house. That’s what he said before he went out there. He’s been saying it.”

“Too many what?” Astrid asks.

“Women,” I say, because I know Wesley and how he thinks. “We confuse him.”

I can see it all, and I know exactly what will happen. I have second sight, which I got from my own father, who foresaw his death. He saw an albino deer cross the road in front of his car while he was on vacation, and he turned to my mother and said, “Something will happen to me,” and something did. A stroke took him a week later, and no one was surprised.

They’ll do surgery on me and give me the usual chemo and radiation. I’ll be okay for a while, but then it will come back in other locations in my body. I won’t have too much time then. The point is not to be morbid but to meet the end of life with celebration. This is what I want to say: The thought of dying is a liberation for me. It frees us from the accumulations.

This is where Corinne comes in. I have it all planned out. I will say to her, “There’s something I want you to do. I want you to accompany me on this journey as far as you can. You can’t go all the way, but you can keep me company part of the way.” She’ll agree to this. As long as I can walk, Corinne will take me around to the parks and the lakes. We’ll go to the Lake Harriet rose garden, and together we’ll identify those roses—floribunda! hybrid tea!—and then we’ll stroll into the Roberts Bird Sanctuary nearby. I know most of the birds over there: There’s a nest of great horned owls, with a couple of owlets growing up and eating whatever the mama owl brings to them, including, I once saw, a crow. I’ve seen warblers and egrets and herons, very dignified creatures, though comical. We’ll see the standard-issue birds, the robins, chickadees, blue jays, and cardinals, birds of that ilk.

She’ll take me over to the Lake Harriet Band Shell, where on warm summer nights the Lake Harriet Orchestra (there is one) will play show tunes, and I’ll sit there in my wheelchair tapping along with “On the Street Where You Live.”

We’ll go down to the Mississippi, and we’ll walk, or I’ll be wheeled, along the pathways near the falls where the mills once were. I’ll hear the guides saying that Minneapolis has a thriving industry in prosthetic medicine because so many industrial accidents occurred here years ago thanks to the machinery built for grinding, lost arms and so on, chewed up in the manufacturing process.

We’ll be out on the Stone Arch Bridge, and Corinne will be absented in her usual way, ideas batting around her head, all the bowling pins up there scattered and in a mess. “I just don’t have any filters,” she’ll say. “Any thought seems to be welcome in my brain at any time, day or night.”

“Yes,” I’ll agree. I’ll see the Pillsbury A Mill from here. What a comfort these old structures will be to us, still standing, their bright gray brick almost indestructible. Spray from the Falls of Saint Anthony, named by Father Hennepin himself, will lightly touch my face, and I’ll feel a sudden stab of pain in my body, but it won’t matter anymore. Pain is the price of admission to the next world. Here will come a boy on a skateboard talking on his cell phone, and behind him, his girlfriend, also on a skateboard (pink, this time), texting as she goes. They’ll look just born, those two, out of the eggshell yesterday.

“Jeremy has one of those,” Corinne will say, meaning the skateboard.

“He’s quite the expert.”

A fat man in flip-flops will pass by us. He’ll be carrying several helium balloons, though I don’t think they’ll be for sale. On the other side of the bridge in Father Hennepin Park, we’ll rest under a maple tree. A single leaf will fall into my lap.

Here. I place it before you.

Glory, gloriousness. During my life, I never had the time to look closely at anything except Wes, when he was a baby, and my husband’s headstone after he was gone. Now I’ll have all the time in the world. Nothing will bore me now. My obliviousness will sink into my past history. Henceforth my patience will be endless, thanks to the brevity of time. Stillness will steal over me as I study the world within. When I look down into my lap, I’ll see in this delicate object the three major parts, with their branching veins, and the ten points of the leaf, and the particular bright red-rust-gold color, but it’s the veins I’ll return to, so like our own, our capillaries. 

I’ll finger the maple leaf tenderly and wonder why we find it beautiful and will answer the question by saying that it’s God-given.

“There’s that nice Dr. Jones, way over there,” Corinne will say. “Lucy’s doctor, out on a stroll.” She’ll pause, then say, “He could lose some weight.”

“They’re doing a Katharine Hepburn revival at the St. Anthony Main movie theater,” I’ll say, gazing at the marquee listing Bringing Up Baby.

“I always found her rather virile,” Corinne will reply.

Thus will our days pass. You need a companion for what I’m about to do, and she’ll be mine. Once I’m in bed, and then in the hospice, she’ll read to me: Pride and Prejudice, my favorite book after the Bible, and she’ll read from the Bible, too, in her haphazard way, wandering from verse to verse. I wonder if she’ll read from the Book of Esther, which never mentions God. Slowly I’ll depart from this Earth, medicated on morphine as I will be, mulling and stirring the fog descending over me, over Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, over daytime and its dark twin, night, while in the background someone will be playing Mozart on a radio. What is that piece? I think I’ll know it. Eine kleine Nachtmusik, is it … ? Then I’ll know more pain, and darkness. And then the light won’t go on ever again, here.

On the other side I’ll float for a while, between worlds. The pain will be gone, the pleasure, too, those categories neutralized. On all sides the boundary markers will have softened. Instead of coming from a single source, sound—music—will come from everywhere, and I’ll hear it with more than my ears. I’ll see with more than my eyes. Faces, I think, will pass me in corridors that are not corridors. The old vocabularies will be useless. They will name nothing anymore. This is the afterlife: We will be headed everywhere and nowhere, and we will drink in light, swallow it, swim in it. We’ll hear laughter. And then—but “then” has no meaning—my dear Michael will find me, without his former shape but still recognizable, and he’ll take my hand and lead me toward two rooms, and he’ll say to me, “Oh, my dearest, my life, there is only one question, but you must answer it.” And I’ll ask him, “What is that question? Tell me. Because I love you …” I’ll want to answer it correctly. What has this to do with the two rooms? But for that moment, after he puts his finger to his lips, he dissolves into air, he becomes pollen, and is scattered.

Somehow I am led into the first room. I’ll be in a chamber of perpetual twilight. No one predicted this twilight, or the shabbiness, the feeling of a beggar. How richly plain this all is! Something wants something from me here. My attention. My love.

Now I’ll enter the second room. And all at once I’ll be dazzled: Because here on the richest of thrones, gold beyond gold, sits this beautiful man, the most beautiful man I have ever seen, smiling at me with an expression of infinite compassion. His hair will be curling into tendrils of vibrating color. He will be holding up his palm, facing toward me, and in that hand I will see the world, the solar system, and the universe, rotating slowly. Behind him somehow are the animals, the great trees, everything. 

It will be a test, the last one I will ever have. Which room do I choose?

The beautiful man clothed in light will ask me, “Do you admire me? Care for me?”

And I will say, “No, because you are Lucifer.” And I will return to the room where it is always twilight, where all that is asked of me is love. 


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Rochelle's picture
Rochelle · 6 years ago

What an ending! I wasn't expecting that. And I didn't expect to see the image of a single leaf, drifting into the story. 



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