Margaret Lewis

s
t
o
r
i
e
s

The old age community looped a fern-frosted lake flanked on both sides by identical little brown brick bungalows. His delivery truck was headed in the wrong direction. Numbers on the mailboxes going down instead of up. He believed he could get to her if he went a little farther into the dusk. Smoke spooled out of bent chimneys. The lights were off in his customer’s house.

Adam knocked and got no answer. Opened the storm door. Pounded harder. He refused to leave without his tip.

The knob turned in his hand.

He stood on the precipice. “Hello?”

No answer came. Maybe she was already asleep.

“Ralph’s Discount Furniture.” He stepped onto thick shag.

His eyes adjusted to the half-light. An organ, a vase of dusty white flowers, a shelf of paperback books. Deeper into the room, he saw her, slumped back in an easy chair, mouth agape, glasses crooked. An elderly woman in polyester and silk.

“Ma’am? Ms. Lewis? I’ve got your filing cabinet. Would you like me to—”

He saw his breath. He flicked the light switch. No heat or power in the house.

“Oh shit.” He understood.

Margaret Lewis was dead in her living room and had been for some time.

Spooked, he lurched back onto the concrete porch. He left the filing cabinet next to the front door and sped away, swerving. The security booth was iced over and unmanned. A handmade sign stuck in the snow read: NEW GUARD COMING SOON.

 

 

He’d had that cakewalk delivery job for eighteen years. At midnight the store was going out of business forever. Adam walked inside a final time.

“Here you go.” He passed Claire the delivery slip.

“She didn’t sign.”

“Guess not.”

Claire crumpled up the slip and threw it into the trash. “Not our problem anymore.”

She went back to cleaning. Adam didn’t tell Claire about the corpse. He thought it would ruin Claire’s night. His night.

She felt him staring. “What.”

For a moment she thought he might reach in his pocket and pay her back the money she’d spotted him for all those lunches.

“I’m just hungry.”

“You always are. Well . . .”

“See you around.” But he doubted that very much.

 

 

Adam walked home. His curly hair catching falling snow. His parents were wheelchair-bound, and he’d figured on living with them until they died. They’d been encouraging him to move out for thirteen years. He was thirty-four. Adam lost his footing going up the driveway, crashed down sideways, crushed his testicles. He slumped inside their house. Mom and Dad were still out. But they’d left him dinner. He dunked Chicken McNuggets in sweet-and-sour sauce, unable to contain his smile. Wolfed it down like some tiny king.

 

 

His drunk father, plastered from dart league, wheeled into his bedroom, wanting to hang out and tell him a friendly secret.

He shone the light on Margaret Lewis. She had not decomposed. The perfect time of year to die in your house and be forgotten.

“Come on, I’m sleeping.”

“Let’s have a beer.” He leaned down to hug Adam and purposefully tumbled into the bed and onto his son. Flailed around. “Oh baby, so sexy.”

His mother was in the doorway laughing. “Leave the boy alone.”

“I want to party. But if he doesn’t want to . . .”

“He doesn’t want to party.”

“It’s all right,” Adam said, his voice warm. He understood partially what was coming. “I don’t have to get up for work or anything. Say what you want to say.”

“Something pretty serious happened, Adam.”

“What?”

“Your mother and me are in love.”

“Joe! Don’t talk about that. Don’t.”

“We met someone,” his father said.

“Who’d you meet?”

His mother said, “We are opening our marriage again.” Opening, as if it were a door.

Mom said, “Can I get you a beer, Adam?”

Dad’s eyes were wide, “Our beautiful friend, ooh la la, tall, let me tell you about her, legs from the ground to oh my god, she’s moving in.”

He looked from parent to parent waiting for the punchline. But they weren’t joking.

Adam said, “Moving in, where? Here?”

“Her name is Daphne. We’re all gaga over the stars for each other. You’ll love her.”

Dad said, “She’s going to sleep on the pullout couch, or sometimes I’m going to sleep on the pullout. We’ll rotate.”

“He doesn’t need the grisly details.”

“What’s grisly about that? She is a beautiful flower just like his mother.”

“It’s fine,” Adam said, “again.” Seven years before, something kind of like this had happened. Only it was a burly boyfriend who’d slept in the shed.

His dad took something out of his pocket. “This is for you.” It was a new bill written in lipstick on a bar napkin. All their calm threats and coaxing had come to a gentle head. They wanted $375 for rent.

“Thanks for this.” Adam waved the napkin in the air, stuck it down the front of his underwear. He looked at his mother. “And yeah, you know what? I’ll take a brewski, please.”

Dad put his head on Adam’s pillow and closed his eyes. Mom came back with three cold cans. Popped each tab and passed them off. The three of them sipped together. The sleet ticked on the window.

“How did you guys do tonight?”

“We won,” she said. “Nobody on earth can beat us.”

“Daphne a rival?”

“Not anymore.”

Adam decided he’d leave and never come back. He hid his face and snickered into his hands. His mother asked what was so funny.

“I just decided to run away from home.”

Now crying laughing, together. And then silence.

Adam finished his beer and abruptly turned over and faced the wall.

“Goodnight.”

“You’re really going back to sleep?”

“Adam?”

 

 

At three in the morning, his alarm went off. He dressed warm and sat at the kitchen table. The farewell note said:

MOM/DAD/DAPHNE,
PROBABLY I JOINED SOME CIRCUS.
O, HOW I LOVE YA,
ADAM

He raided his parents’ fridge, then felt guilty and stuffed it all back in, sideways and akimbo. Adam tumbled out the backdoor into the freeze. Slid down the aluminum wheelchair ramp. Turning back, he realized he’d left the light on in his bedroom. Fuck it. He walked forward through the dark.

 

 

Fullmoonlit, he crossed the highway. Cut behind a slumbering church. Volunteer firehall. Around the reservoir, he stomped his feet until he felt his steps. There was still no guard in the booth of the retirement community. Margaret Lewis’s house was as he’d left it.

He avoided her corpse, crept room to room, searching with a flashlight, gathering loose trinkets, baffled by the jewelry, couldn’t tell costume from the real thing.

Shivering. Teeth chattering. Gaining courage. He shone the light on Margaret Lewis. She had not decomposed. The perfect time of year to die in your house and be forgotten. He got closer. Her expression was completely neutral. She could care less. He was relieved. So death didn’t have to be a pain in the ass, after all. A person can die bored, remain bored ever after.

 

 

Dawn began. Adam went into the garage and admired the old Lincoln. He wanted to cruise down the coast in this fine, frog-colored car. Start a new life bartending oceanside in the Keys, specializing in coconut concoctions. Get tan, get laid, adore and be adored by rich women. Shake the shaker overhead. Flamingo-shirted. Pour it out gooey. Nice and easy.

Moving a dead body could be normal. Anything could be normal. Do you feel normal? You should. It’s just a job. Do your job.

He heard scraping outside. Fur-hooded kids were shoveling snow off Margaret Lewis’s driveway. Adam hurried back into the house and took ten dollars out of Margaret Lewis’s purse. He waved the money out the door.

“You can stop now.”

The bewildered kids stared at his hand.

“We’re ecstatic with what you did.”

A plow rumbled down the street.

It was too busy out there. He crept into the dining room and considered the silverware. What was worth taking and didn’t weigh a ton. In the medicine cabinet he found stool softener and nail polish remover and denture glue and vitamin D.

 

 

Adam woke with a gasp. The postman was rasping on the storm door. “Hi-de-ho. Mailbox full again.”

Yeah, this was right. This was how the dead were discovered. Overstuffed mailboxes, irritated letter carriers.

“I told you what I’d do. Open the door.”

He’d have to sneak out the back door before the police arrived.

“Lewis, open up.”

No, they’d follow his footprints through the snow.

Adam opened the window and made his voice high-pitched, “I’m indisposed.”

The postman shouted, “Marge, come here, I’ll wait.”

Adam replied in the high-pitched voice, “Indecent.”

“I’m done telling you—” The postman tossed the pile of mail on the steps and stomped off to the next bungalow.

 

 

Catalogues. Junk. A letter from Rhode Island in a handwritten envelope, addressed to “M. Lewis aka Mom.”

Something else: a Social Security check for fourteen hundred dollars for January. Perfect. But he’d have to forge Margaret Lewis’s name. Adam looked at the date. Another check would come in a week or so. He’d take that one too.

So death didn’t have to be a pain in the ass, after all. A person can die bored, remain bored ever after.

The sun went down, and he walked out of the development holding one of Margaret’s snow shovels. He was just another innocent laborer. Feet wet and his bones aching, he stopped at the deli and bought two hot dogs and a hot cocoa. The clerk yelled at him to take it easy with the free relish and mustard.

Adam considered throwing the check in the garbage. In jail you couldn’t get these teeny pastel marshmallows. He paid and left. The shovel leaning against the brick wall. The check in his wallet.

 

 

His parents were at the kitchen table eating Salvadorian takeout. “You’re back.”

His coat sagged low with silverware and trinkets.

“Just popping in for a visit.”

Dad saluted. “Buddy, I missed you.”

“Marvelous to see you.”

“I don’t live here anymore.”

Dad shrugged. Mom asked if he was hungry and he felt a little proud being able to say, “I’m stuffed.”

Adam sat down at the table and watched them eat.

His father grinned merrily. “How’s the circus?”

After dinner they all watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Corpse of a friend in a big treasure trunk and a soirée orbiting it. His mother and father munched popcorn and sipped scotch. The movie was one continuous take, but they paused for an intermission so his father could refresh the drinks. His mother leaned over. “Where are you staying?”

“With a friend. You don’t know her.”

His mother smiled. “Girlfriend?”

“Sure.”

“How did you meet?”

“Delivering furniture.”

“Special delivery?” his father said from the kitchen. Ice cubes musical.

“What other kind?”

“So sudden.”

“Well, this is great. You’re happy?”

“Very.”

“House? Apartment? Tell me what you and the lucky lady need.”

“We’ve got everything. Old house.”

“Let me give you something.”

“She’s lived there a long time.”

His mother looked like she’d soon cry in relief and ruin her blue eyeshadow. She’d worried about him for decades. “Let me put a little in your pocket.”

“Okay, ma. Just a little. Till I get on my feet.”

She got the checkbook from the drawer.

“But I don’t have a bank account.”

“Still? Get one.” She made it out to cash.

“I will, I will.”

He didn’t stay for the second half of the movie. Jimmy Stewart walking around the party eating ice cream. Leaning unknowing against the trunk with the dead body inside. Farting and scratching his ass and eating ice cream at this party. Adam couldn’t stand Jimmy Stewart. He hugged his parents goodbye and followed his own tracks in the snow.

 

 

The next morning, he dressed in Margaret’s clothes. Floral blouse, polyester pants, fuchsia headwrap, giant cataract sunglasses. Cantaloupe lipstick. Ridiculous rouge. She had small feet. Other than that, they were nearly the same everywhere else. He wore his own shoes.

Margaret Lewis’s ledger said $2,987 in checking. Over ten thousand dollars in savings. They were rich.

Adam signed both checks in Margaret Lewis’s name, mimicking the signature on her expired driver’s license. Slung her purse over his shoulder. Backed the Lincoln down the driveway, nearly got stuck.

No problems at the drive-thru. The most money he’d ever held in his hand in his entire life. The teller hadn’t spoken a word to him through the intercom. Maybe she had a personal problem with Margaret. He drove off wondering what kind of person Margaret had been. He’d look for her diary when he got home. Bald tires made it difficult to get the car up the driveway. And he didn’t like coming back into the cold house after the enjoyable oven of the car.

Adam stood by her body. “Guess what. I work for you now, Margaret.”

He took the crooked glasses off her face and set them on the table next to the chair. Margaret Lewis’s landline telephone worked. He called the electric company and arranged for the power to be turned back on. He gave them her bank account number and routing number and hoped for the best.

The mailman stuffed a notice from the telephone company and a circular from Food Universe into the box. “Good, you’re alive,” he shouted through the door. Adam paid the phone bill the same way. The food circular made his stomach howl.

Margaret Lewis’s ledger said $2,987 in checking. Over ten thousand dollars in savings. They were rich.

He thought back to high school economics, what he’d learned. Adam balanced a checkbook for the first time in his life. Some previous entries in the ledger were made out to “Junky Bitch.” Once a month, $250 sent to Junky Bitch. When he finally read the letter, he saw exactly who the Junky Bitch was. The daughter, Allison.

 

 

He lit candles and read The Walking Drum. She had forty-three paperback novels by Louis L’Amour. He had trouble reading because his eyes were bad. He tested Margaret’s spectacles and that was a big improvement. Soon he fell asleep with all the candles blazing.

 

 

The power company came. Adam leaned out the door and signed the paperwork. The guy gave him a funny look. Afterwards Adam saw he’d forgotten to remove the eyeshadow, rouge, cantaloupe lipstick.

His next order of business was to get Margaret Lewis down the stairs before the heat did things to her. He put on a pair of yellow rubber dishwashing gloves and tied two floral patterned aprons over his clothes. He held his breath and took hold of Margaret and hefted her out of the chair. Trapped air rushed out, sounding like a gasp. Frightened, he released his grip, and she crashed onto the shag rug.

Her wig had shifted. For a long time he watched to see if she would move. Convinced she was somehow partially alive. He bent down slowly and put his ear to her back and listened for a heartbeat. Nothing.

He sat in the dining room, near the back door, rattled, and read a mortician’s blog post on his phone. The top five things you never knew about the recently departed. They were often beautifully ruby-colored because of settled blood. “Angel lust” was a term for the erection that occurred when a man kicked the bucket. Jesus Christ up on the cross was speculated to have been engorged at the time of demise. Some painters even depicted him mightily aroused. And bugs, expect lots of bugs. He had to get Margaret down into the basement where it was cooler. Otherwise, flies, maggots, bacteria.

He read on. Some even claimed a body would sometimes sit up suddenly in the morgue, but the blogging mortician had never seen this in twenty years’ experience. Though during incineration, he’d somehow seen the corpse of a child inexplicably raise both hands once engulfed in flame. But there must be some scientific explanation.

And of course, yes, sometimes when you moved a dead body it could gasp. Air in the vessel, that was normal. Don’t fret. Moving a dead body could be normal too. Anything could be normal. Do you feel normal? You should. It’s just a job. Do your job.

Adam debated moving her body. It was possible to put her back in the chair and leave the house and make an anonymous phone call.

He stood in the living room and looked at her slumped over. He couldn’t leave her like that. Couldn’t leave her to be found that way. So uncared for. He wished he had a cart, or even better, a furniture dolly. He hated thinking of Margaret Lewis like a refrigerator, a bookcase. She was still a human. She was not a washing machine. She was a person.

If he could collect her Social Security checks for a while, he could throw her an extravagant funeral and even get her an elegant grave marker with an angel on top. He didn’t want her to wind up buried in some potter’s field.

He leaned down and righted her body. His hand touched something alien. She was wearing a breast prothesis bra. Breast cancer, he thought. Adam laid a patchwork quilt on the floor, multigenerational, telling the family’s story. Hieroglyphics to him. He rolled Margaret Lewis up in the quilt and then dragged her out of the living room, onto the up-peeling sea green linoleum. The kitchen was cramped and alarmingly orange. He couldn’t catch his breath. Adam thought he’d have time to get in wonderful shape in prison.

He opened the door to the basement and began to ease Margaret Lewis down the steep wooden steps, one creaky riser at a time, cradling her under the quilt so her skull didn’t strike. He wiped the sweat from his brow.

Adam noticed the freezer chest. Even better. He opened the lid and looked inside.

Frozen chicken and hamburgers and two turkeys. He set it all on the concrete floor and removed the metal dividers too. He climbed inside and found he could sit with legs outstretched and arms comfortably at his sides, which meant it would be no problem at all for Margaret.

The phone rang upstairs. He walked up, three risers at a time. The answering machine spoke a greeting. Margaret’s voice for the first time. She sounded like a chain smoker. But he’d found no cigarettes in the house.

At the beep he heard, “Hi, Mom. I was just calling because I didn’t hear from you last week or then, um, this week. I sent you a letter. Are you okay? Mad at me? You always are. But did you, like, fall and can’t get up? Call me back. I don’t need money. Don’t hate me. Your last letter was really cruel, even for you. Made me cry. Don’t hate me. I love you. I want to call an ambulance or something or the fire department to check on you, if you hear someone axing the door down, don’t panic. Oh, here we go, I’m getting another call, hope it’s you. Bye.”

Next to the phone was a purple book. He found four crossed-out telephone numbers and addresses for Allison. An arrow pointed to a fifth entry. He pushed a button and listened to Margaret’s greeting on the answering machine again. He practiced her pronunciations. She spoke like a drill sergeant toad. He mimicked this voice to the empty room.

 

 

Allison picked up on the first ring.

“Oh, thank God.”

Adam imitated Margaret with heavy laryngitis, for extra cover. “I can barely talk.”

“You sound terrible. You’re sick? Fever? What’s going on?”

“I lost my voice. I’m sending your check.”

“Okay. But that’s not why I called. I’m really worried about you, Mom. Should I come?”

“No. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

“You sound so bad. I can be there, day after tomorrow.”

“Please, don’t. I’m okay. Sending your check today. Let’s talk later. Gonna go, sweetie.”

“Sweetie? You’ve never been nice like that. Aww. Sweetie? Bye, Mom.” There was a pause as Allison considered if it was okay to say what she said next. Then she just said it, “I love you.”

“And I love you.”

Adam didn’t enjoy this strange woman saying she loved him. Even worse, he’d said he loved her back without hesitation.

 

 

Adam went downstairs and took Margaret Lewis out of the quilt and hefted her into the freezer. He was shaking from the exertion. He closed the lid. He wiped away tears. He carried the quilt upstairs and folded it and put it back on the velvet couch. He went downstairs and picked the turkeys up off the floor and took them upstairs to the kitchen. He made another trip for the frozen hamburgers. He slipped off the dish gloves and washed them in the sink. He washed his hands again. The gas was off, or he would have cooked a hamburger. He called the gas company and paid the bill. He ate gingerbread cookies for lunch and then again for dinner.

He read Margaret’s diary. Old as she was, he only found the one. It went back three years. The first short entry read: I burnt my previous diary today just as I have always done since I was a little school girl. No one is privy to my thoughts!

The diary mostly had entries about how much she despised Allison. Excerpts read: I don’t care if she dies! And, She’ll just waste her inheritance on cocaine, so I might as well set that on fire too. The diary was also something of a dream journal, though most of the entries still had something bad to say about Allison. I dreamt Allison died in a bathtub. I was an EMT and resuscitated her just to hold her head under the water. I wish things were better between us.

He did like Margaret’s poetry, though. She could have been published. Maybe she had been. Though he found none of her published poetic works around the house. He imagined she would not have wanted it in the house. Maybe she burned them too.

As he read on, she began to appear to him through her poetry. A very hard childhood in Cleveland. Survivor of the Great Depression. Miscarriages, infidelities on both sides of the marriage. Cubicle career. Sober. Teetotaler. Widow. Resentment about being a mother and having a daughter whose problems she deemed avoidable, a choice.

Margaret Lewis wrote dark, transcendent poetry, it was just too bad she was so negative. Inspired, he found loose leaf paper and began to play around with her poems, editing with a red pen. He tried to keep the subject matter the same but turned the poignant gloom into saccharine light. He was sure he was a genius as he did it.

 

 

He took Margaret’s car out on a dangerous mission. He was wearing his own underwear and pants and shoes, but was in disguise otherwise, her fur coat and headwrap. It was the middle of the night again. It was always the middle of the night.

He parked in the far corner of Walmart’s lot and took off the fur coat and the headwrap and walked into the store’s bright lights. He loaded the largest crockpot they had in his cart. He pulled an index card with Margaret’s turkey soup recipe out of his pocket. Her cursive said carrots and celery and stock, egg noodles, bell pepper. He filled the cart. He was in eyeline of the beer cooler, so he put a case of Coors in the cart. Then he could see down the aisle into the electronics, and there was a sign that said a thirty-two-inch LED TV was only $149. He didn’t believe it.

Azia unzipped his fly and found out he was wearing granny panties, but they didn’t talk about that.

He tried to find an associate and then saw even more impossibly that a forty-inch TV was $189. A lousy brand but he didn’t care. It was annoying to watch Margaret’s tube TV from the eighties, and it didn’t have the proper jacks to work a video game system. He saw a PlayStation for $299 and a war game was included. Enough poetry, he thought.

At the register, he was shocked to see Claire from the furniture store was now an overnight clerk. She marveled at the contents of his cart.

“Didja win the Pick 5?”

“Something like that.”

Claire gave him a funny look. Adam made a big kingly show of opening his wallet. “I haven’t forgotten you.” He gave her fifty dollars and told her to keep the change.

“No, I’m not keeping the change, Adam!”

“Can you just take this?”

She palmed it. “You get a sugar momma?”

He put the giant TV on the belt even though she had a hand scanner. Claire shook her head. He paid for everything in cash and loaded it all back into the cart. She asked if he had gotten a new job. He said he was enjoying some free time between gigs, and when she mentioned putting in a word for him with her manager, he said, “Thank you so much. I’m probably good for a month, or two, or three, or we’ll see.”

“See what?”

“I’m doing a freelance thing, hush hush and all. Even signed an NDA.”

“Okay.”

“Nondisclosure agreement.”

“Okay.”

Coming out of the store he saw two cops parked in front of the Taco Bell, waiting patiently for two in the morning when the bars emptied. Margaret’s inspection sticker was expired and the registration card was missing and who knew about the insurance.

He hurried back inside. Busied himself. Wandered among the stationary. Wound up surrounded by greeting cards. He bought a pretty one, a nice pen, and a diary almost identical to the one Margaret had last used. He’d decided he’d copy her entire diary but transform it into something uplifting, just as he’d done with the poetry. For Allison.

Adam went through the self-checkout to avoid Claire, who noticed him from her register anyway. “Hey again.”

He went back to the car and wrote the card to Allison in a languid cursive mimicking Margaret’s. “My darling daughter, my heart is full of affection. If I have ever been cruel to you, don’t blame yourself. I cherish you.”

He copied improved versions of two of Margaret’s poems onto the other side of the card. He stuck two hundred and sixty dollars in the card and sealed the envelope. The police cars were gone. He eased off in the opposite direction—taking the long way. His hands were jumping so much on the wheel he thought he’d crash if he didn’t get off the road. He parked behind the soccer field and screamed once, twice, and waited for the sun.

 

 

The security arm was down when he got back. A guard in the booth. If the Pillsbury Doughboy was a school shooter.

“Morning. Where we going?”

Adam said the address. The guard pecked away at a keyboard. “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”

He said he was Margaret’s son.

“Okay, well what’s your name?”

“Adam.”

“I don’t have an Adam Lewis on the list.” The guard gave him a hard look.

“My name used to be Allison.”

The guard’s eyes softened. “Ohhhhhh. Dead name, got it. Sorry about that.” The guard slapped the counter. “I got a buddy with a dead name, I’ve known them for twenty years, but I’ve wiped the dead name from my mind, you know what I mean?”

“I do, yeah.

“Couldn’t recall my buddy’s dead name if you had a gun to my head.”

“That’s very cool.”

“They’ll forever be Calanthe to me. It means Christmas Orchid, isn’t that nice?”

“I like that.”

The guard said, “But listen, there’s a problem. I don’t have an Allison on my list either. Soooooooo, I’d have to call the house and it’s early. You can see my predicament.”

“Very early, yes.”

“Do you want me to phone?”

“Wait, I just remembered,” Adam said. There was a blank white card clipped to the sun visor. He pulled it down and waved it in front of the scanner, but the security arm didn’t lift.

“Looks like Mom is behind on her maintenance fees.” The guard leaned out the booth and said in a lower voice, “And just so you know, I’m not trying to be a dick, but they had some robberies here. Last guard had something to do with it, but you didn’t hear that from me. Even though I can’t let you in, I want you to feel welcome here.”

“You’re just doing your job. I’ll get breakfast and bother her after. Can my mom call and add me to the list?”

“It’s as easy as that.”

Adam slipped the Lincoln into reverse.

He’d call the guard booth from a payphone, mimic Margaret’s voice, have Allison’s name added. But the security guard said, “Hey wait—excuse me—go on in. It’s okay. I’m being dumb.” The arm lifted and Adam put it into drive. He gave a little salute. The guard saluted back.

 

 

Adam set up the new TV and the gaming system. He chopped celery and carrots and onion and turkey and filled the crockpot with ingredients and turned it to slow cook. He played the war game all night. His own bachelor pad. He was ashamed he’d waited so long to move out of his parents’ house. He ate soup for every meal all that next week.

 

 

Allison left seven messages on the machine. “I’m doing fine. And hey, Mom, I got your card with your poem to me, not sure how to feel—are you dying or something?”

Adam’s cellphone rang. It was his father.

“Hey Dad, what’s up?”

“My boy, the police were here looking for you.”

He ran to Margaret’s window and looked outside. An old man with a cane was hunched over, walking a tiny shivering terrier.

“What did they want?”

“They wanted to know why you didn’t call your mother yesterday on her birthday.”

“Oh, kiss my ass. You’re going to give me a heart attack.”

“Seriously, pal, you’ve only got one mom.”

“I don’t know what happened. Please put her on?”

“Out with her friends.”

“I’ve got money. I’ll buy dinner.”

“Olive Garden. Tomorrow night.”

“I’m paying.”

Dad said, “I’m not sure what happened to you, but I like it. Suddenly all grow’d up. Suddenly a man. See you tomorrow, my forgetful son.”

Adam fired up the video game. It infuriated him the way they’d programmed it so when you died you came back as a soldier in random armies on random sides of the conflict. Worst of all, you stayed the hero.

 

 

He made three phone calls that night. First, he called an escort service and asked for two girls, blonde and young. The dispatcher or pimp or whoever was reluctant to give Adam the names of the girls. Adam explained about the guard. “He probably respects sex workers more than anybody. But still, there’s a list to enter and lots of rules.”

He didn’t expect to live long enough to retire. So he was doing it now.

“Where are you, prison?”

“Retirement community,” Adam said and the dispatcher laughed. “But I’m a young man. Everything works.”

“You sound excited, dawg, good for you. It’ll just be, eh, Rocket and Azia. They’re wild, dawg. Wild.”

“Is Asia blonde?”

“Azia is whoever you want her to be.”

Adam called the guard house and added Rocket and Azia to the list. The guard wanted last names and he said, “Like Madonna or Prince or Cher or Sting.”

“We having a concert?”

 

 

He called Allison back. She answered in tears, her words slurred. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Adam did his best Margaret impersonation and asked what was wrong. Allison said she needed to get away from some people who were not her friends. Her boyfriend, mostly. Adam said, “Honey, you need to do what is right for you.”

“I want to come live with you.”

“Honey, it’s fifty-five years or over. Can’t happen.”

Allison wept. “I just need somewhere for a week or two. No one would know. I’ll stay in my room.”

“Doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

“No.” She sounded stronger. “I’m leaving here as soon as possible. I’m coming.”

“Sweetie, calm down. It’ll be okay.”

“Your voice still sounds weird. You’re sick still. Western Union me forty dollars and I’ll get on a bus in an hour. I’ll take care of you. Aren’t you lonely, Mom? I am.”

“Good news. I’m mailing you some new poems I wrote about you, tomorrow. That will cheer you up.”

“Can we talk about anything else? So sad and so unsexy.”

He looked at the clock and thought he better wrap things up quick. The girls would arrive soon.

“I have something to tell you. Allison, are you sitting down?”

“I’m lying face down on the floor.”

“I had a drug problem a few years before you were born. Cough syrup. And I started each morning huffing paint. Went to bed each night blazed on morphine.”

“What.”

“My darling, a few times I even chased the dragon intravenously.”

“I can’t—”

“It’s true. I would’ve died in the gutter. I believe that. But then I began to dream of you. Years before you were born I dreamt of you. I got help. Professional help. I checked into the Betty Ford Clinic, or something, and they saved my life. I got clean. Met your father, and got that terrific job working in that cubicle for thirty years. Best of all, I gave birth to you, Allison.”

“I want to get clean. I want to get clean, or I want to die.”

“Check in tonight. I’ll pay for everything. I don’t give a fuck. Whatever it is, I’ll pay for it. Check in and have them call me here.”

 

 

The girls arrived. Everything was loud all of a sudden, lots to say. Azia was a black woman wearing a blonde wig. Rocket was a white woman, one side of her head dyed blue, the other half green.

“You don’t look like a senior citizen, Daddy.”

“I’m thirty-four,” he said.

“It smells really good in here,” Rocket said.

“I made beef Wellington. This is a special occasion. Would either of you lovely women care for some?”

Azia tilted her head at him, like, what?

“Or a drink?”

“You’re a chef, Daddy.”

“Learning to be, I guess. Old family recipes.”

Azia said, “But what are you doing in this place? You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”

“Mom died and I’m living in her house saving up money for a proper burial.”

“Proper burial?”

“She’s on ice right now.”

“I’m sorry, what does that mean?”

“It’s kind of a refrigeration unit, you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Can we talk about anything else? So sad and so unsexy.”

Azia checked her watch and asked where they would all have their date.

He brought them down the hallway, at first opening the door to the guest room but a giant dollhouse was on the bed and the walls had creepy paintings of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy from the bicentennial.

He brought Rocket and Azia into Margaret’s room and there was terse silence.

“I know it’s odd, this was her room. I’m just a normal guy, trying to get some double lovin’ in just what so happens to be the bedroom of a recently deceased, really great lady.”

Adam sat on the squeaky bed. Azia asked for the money. He paid and took his shirt off and waited. Rocket lifted her dress over her head and he saw a scar that ran from her throat to her crotch.

“Tell me exactly what you like.”

Azia unzipped his fly and found out he was wearing granny panties, but they didn’t talk about that. The women crouched down together and worked their mouths on him, but nothing was happening. They tried for ten minutes, licking and stoking to no avail.

“I’m really sorry,” Rocket said.

“Yeah, we feel bad, Daddy.”

“You can call me Adam if that’s all right.”

The women wiped their mouths and he zipped up.

“We’re sorry, Adam.”

“Yeah, Adam, sorry man.”

Adam said, “It’s my fault. Rough time in life. It’s me. I’m the problem. You know what though. That was really great. Thank you both.” They all shook hands.

 

 

They ate beef Wellington and store-bought apple strudel. They drank champagne. They played the war game, alternating controllers. Taunting each other, “Gonna snipe you, sucker.” Slapping their knees when a land mine went off, cleaving limbs. He read aloud some of Margaret’s poetry he’d reworked. A tear rolled down Azia’s cheek. She clapped. He gave them antique perfume to take as a gift. As they were leaving, he said, “So fun. So fun. You’re on the gatehouse list now. Maybe we can try this again next week?”

 

 

No mail came the next day, but he got a phone call from the billing department of a rehab facility in Nooseneck, Rhode Island. Allison had admitted herself. Thirty-day stay. $6200.

“Please admit my daughter. I’ll put a check in the mail today.” First, he had to move some money around at Margaret’s bank so the check wouldn’t bounce.

Two hours before dinner with his parents and one hour before the bank closed, he dressed in Margaret’s clothes, sunglasses, and makeup. Squeezed painfully into a pair of her black pumps. When he got to the bank he saw the drive-thru was destroyed. A dump truck had tried to pass beneath and had ripped down the awning. He’d have to go inside. He thought of Allison Lewis overdosing and bit his lip and parked the car and entered the bank.

The teller at the counter didn’t even look at him. She took the slip and did the transfer without asking to see a driver’s license or anything. Adam thought, So this was what older women mean when they say they feel invisible. He even bought stamps. Forever Muppets.

 

 

Olive Garden was packed. He snuck up behind his mother’s wheelchair and kissed her cheek. “Happy birthday, I’m an idiot.”

She gasped in surprise. He heard his mother’s name being called and thought it was the hostess, but no, it was Daphne, standing by the fish tank, waving. Swoopy auburn hair. Big teeth. Yellow dress. Daphne leaned down and gave his mother a passionate kiss and said, “Happy b-day, Kimmy.”

His father got the second passionate kiss.

Daphne stepped to the side. Dad said, “This is our son.”

“I’ve heard so many, too many, great things about you, Adam.”

Adam shook Daphne’s hand. But he wouldn’t look her in the eye. She drifted over to his father and whispered, “I’m only paying for us three.”

His father said, “You’re being a baby.”

During dinner, there were some questions he didn’t want to answer. What was his girlfriend like? They thought they might meet her tonight, no? Can she join for a cocktail after? He told them he and his girlfriend were having some trouble, but he was living out their lease in their luxurious bungalow. Alone.

“For how long?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Three or four or five months. Six tops. Feel like I’m under investigation here.”

“Daphne is a private eye,” his mother said with pride.
“Quite a successful one.”

Dad said, “If she wanted to, she could go work for Scotland Yard.”

“My love life really isn’t any of her business.”

“Fair enough,” Daphne said.

Dad said, “Adam, is it mine? Can I ask, is it my business? Seriously, where’s your hottie?”

“She went to rehab. Beginning a whole new phase of her life. I wish her the best.”

“Good for her. What’s her name?”

“My ex’s name is Allison.”

His father said, “You broke up with your girlfriend because she went to rehab?”

The waitress brought sangria for his father and two watermelon margaritas, one for him and one for mom. Daphne drank a rum and coke. They said cheers and the rest of the conversation was about darts and Robert Altman’s Nashville, which his parents had just watched that afternoon.

He asked the librarian if she knew anything about funerals, the cost.

Dinner was heavy with slurping. Unlimited soup, infinite breadsticks. No room for pudding but they had it anyway. When it was all over, Daphne excused herself and went off to the powder room. Adam asked the waitress for the check. His father was smiling wide. “I’m really not paying for the homewrecker though.”

“The homewrecker?”

“You’re upsetting me,” his mother said. “I’ve never seen you like this. It’s really ugly.”

“Whose home was wrecked?”

“Whose home? I don’t care. I got my own place.”

“Don’t be like this.”

When Daphne came back, they were all still arguing. She picked up her purse and said, “I think I should go.”

“Go on, get out of here,” Adam said.

“Adam.”

She opened her purse and his mother groaned. His father said, “No, no. Sit down and I’m buying you dinner too, Dee.”

Adam studied the bill. Tried to figure out the math of it divided by three plus tip.

His mom was laughing. “Daphne is not trying to replace your mother.”

“Good,” Adam said. “I’m not calling her ‘Mom.’”

“My name is Daphne, and if you want to be my friend, you can call me Dee. But if you’re not more polite—”

“What? What are you going to do?”

“Don’t mess with her. She knows karate.”

“I’ll drag you out of here by your hair and roundhouse your ass in front of all the people out there waiting for a table.”

Adam’s father started to clap.

Adam shrugged it off and placed a personal check in front of his dad who asked bluntly, “Who is Margaret Lewis?”

Her name was at the top of the check.

“Oh, you guys will love this. See I’m—I’m seeing two women.”

The waitress came back and apologized. “We don’t take personal checks.”

His father graciously put down his own credit card and didn’t even make fun.

 

 

Another Social Security check arrived. He ran errands. A trip to the bank. Another grocery store spree. Then the public library. He scanned the DVDs. Nothing he wanted. He asked the librarian if she knew anything about funerals, the cost.

“Cremation or burial?”

“Hmmm, maybe she’d want to be burned up. She liked to burn things.”

The librarian took him to the nonfiction section. The best they could find was a three-hundred-page book on the funeral arts written in 1973.

“A classic.”

“Or you can just call some funeral parlors and ask.”

He went into the basement and opened the chest freezer. Margaret looked like she’d fallen asleep.

The conversations with the funeral directors unnerved him. It would be at least ten thousand dollars for the service Margaret Lewis deserved. He’d have to live in the house for a year to save that kind of money. He could get a job and speed things up, but all he wanted was to sit around the house and play the war game, cook exquisite meals, get double-teamed by Rocket and Azia. He didn’t expect to live long enough to retire. So he was doing it now.

He wondered if there could be money in entering Margaret’s poetry into contests. Cash prizes. But the contest fees were insulting. He applied for a bunch of credit cards in Margaret’s name and defrosted another turkey. Later the next day, he toyed around with Margaret’s recipe for cacciatore, improving it fivefold.

 

 

Allison called from rehab. Her spirits were up. Twenty more days to go.

A warm spell hit. Nearly seventy degrees in February. The snow melted and flooded Margaret’s yard and the basement got two inches of water and the GCI for the freezer chest popped. Adam pumped out the water, mopped up, reset the breaker.

 

 

“Ten more days to go,” Allison said. She told jokes about the other inpatients. Inmates she called them. She said the worst was over for her. She knew how to stay clean. And she’d applied for a job building houses for the homeless. One of the branches was in Margaret’s town. She’d decided to move back, whether she got the job or not. She’d get her own apartment in the group of buildings behind the diner. “I’ll come over every Tuesday night and learn how to manufacture your infamous meatballs. We’ll play gin rummy and watch Murder, She Wrote.”

 

 

A credit card with an eighteen-thousand-dollar limit plopped into the mailbox. He called the funeral home and made arrangements. “This is very wise, Ms. Lewis, we never know when our time will come. Best to be prepared.” As soon as the big transaction went through, the landline rang. He told the bank, “No, it’s not fraud. I’m dying, is all.”

 

 

Another warm day. He checked the weather. The temperature over the next ten days would break fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Adam moved one of the dining room chairs out to the porch next to the filing cabinet and sat down, dressed as Margaret, cataract glasses, white satin gloves up to the elbows, ivy-colored dress, sheer stocking, purple spring jacket. The neighbor with the terrier walked by and waved from the sidewalk. “Beautiful day. I feel the change.”

Adam said, “I feel it too.”

 

 

He went into the basement and opened the chest freezer. Margaret looked like she’d fallen asleep. Miniature icicles hung from her eyebrows. He couldn’t free her from the freezer. She was frozen to the bottom. He closed the lid and tipped the entire chest on its side. The jolt broke the lid off its pins and released Margaret Lewis. He pulled her out onto the quilt. Her legs were frozen straight up and hinged at the hip and head slumped down to the left and mouth slightly agape. He eased her up the stairs.

The evening was in the low forties. He shut the heat off in the house, opened the window in the dining room and put on his goose down jacket.

When Allison called that night, he imitated Margaret’s voice again and told her the name of the funeral home where he’d made arrangements.

“Don’t start talking like that.”

“Just in case, Allison. I’m okay now, but you never know. No one is too young to plan. I refuse to burden you financially. Say the name of the funeral home back to me. Say it.”

He gathered all his things. Filled the trunk of the Lincoln. Left the community. Threw the television and the PlayStation and the crockpot and all Margaret’s clothes he’d worn into Walmart’s dumpster and then he raced on back to her house.

 

 

Margaret’s legs were still frozen straight out when he placed her upright in the chair on the front porch. When she thawed, her heels would rest on the concrete. Then it occurred to him to prop her feet under the ottoman from the guest room.

He apologized. “I’m sorry, Margaret. I haven’t done good, not a single thing. I meant to. Every day I meant to. It’s not you, it’s me. We’re different people than who we were when we first met. I’m leaving you. We could go on like this for years. I know it. I never knew you. Maybe you never let anybody know you. Thanks for the recipes. I’m taking them. You were right about Louis L’Amour. Other than that, bon voyage.”

He moved a small end table out next to Margaret and left the diary he had rewritten on top of the filing cabinet beside her. He placed a rock on top so it could not be blown away. One day Allison would read it and she would believe her mother was a great person. He took the old diary into the backyard and lit it on fire and disappeared the ashes into the mud with his shoe. It was pitch black and the clouds were moving in. The tracks he’d made would soon be gone.

He walked out of the retirement community. The guard in the booth was singing along to Man of la Mancha, belting out “The Impossible Dream.”

Adam saw the guard’s arms swinging in exuberant silhouette. He cut into the pines.

 

 

Endless cups of diner coffee. An irritated waitress. He wondered how much a studio apartment cost in the complex behind the diner. He drank more burnt coffee.

At five o’clock in the morning, the line cook’s shift ended, and he was replaced by his dayshift counterpart. Adam left five dollars on the table and rushed out into the lot and asked the cook for a ride.

The cook thought he was insane but gave him a lift anyway. They went to Walmart. Adam climbed in the dumpster and pulled out his TV and PlayStation and crockpot. At the pawn shop across the plaza, he got $285 for it all.

 

 

Adam took a room at the Shamrock Motel and lived off Spam, ramen noodles, and tap water. He called his parents every night. They always asked, “Where are you?”

“I’m in a monastery.”

“Sounds good, pal.”

His father passed the phone to Daphne. “Adam, I’m sorry. We didn’t get off on the right foot.”

He apologized profusely. “I’m the asshole.”

“I was a punk to my stepmother for twenty years. Would you consider getting your butt here? I made grasshopper pie.”

“Can’t, so busy. Really. I’ve become a monk.”

“That’s true?”

“For now.”

He worried if he ever went back into their house, he’d never leave it again.

If they had read her diary, maybe they wouldn’t be at the funeral.

Adam took a grunt labor job out of the newspaper, working a shovel, digging ditches, installing fences, minor foundation work. Sunburn and windburn. The guys he worked with were all ex-cons, told humorous stories about prison. He’d be happy to never have his own funny stories. He got another job delivering flowers on Saturdays.

He pulled up to the booth in Margaret’s retirement community. The guard asked where he was going and who he was, and when he gave his honest answer, the arm lifted like magic. He passed her house, and she was gone from the chair on the porch. He noticed the filing cabinet was still out where he’d left it.

 

 

Margaret Lewis’s obituary was in the paper. He stood in the back of the wake. Her ashes were in an urn shaped like a silver pheasant. The crowded room surprised him. All nice-looking people. But none of them had checked in on Margaret during those seven weeks they’d lived together. He alone knew Margaret’s inner life. If they had read her diary, maybe they wouldn’t be at the funeral.

He spotted Allison. She looked just like her mother. But thinner and shorter. She had cried away all her makeup. She radiated health. He leaned against the wallpaper and tried to become one of the roses. Allison stood in the middle of the room and raised a hand over her head and recited two of Margaret’s poems that Adam had reworked. He clapped wildly. Everyone turned to look at him, and then they began to clap too.

“One more.”

Somebody whistled.

“Encore.”

Allison Lewis got choked up. She took a deep breath, cleared the tears away, and said, “My mother sent me this last poem when I was at rock bottom and didn’t think I would survive this winter. Well, here I am Mom, I love you. You made my life and you saved my life. The poem that saved my life begins like this . . .”

Bud Smith’s fiction has appeared at publications including The Paris Review, Bomb, and The Nervous Breakdown. Teenager, a novel, is forthcoming from Vintage in 2022.

You Might Also Enjoy

No Knowing

Jennifer Nelson

“That a really accurate calculation or estimate may not exist, that the procedure is pure guess-work, or simply traditional. . .

poems

Further Reading

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.