Dan Pinkerton – Fiction

Dan Pinkerton

Dan Pinkerton lives in Urbandale, Iowa. His stories and poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Salamander, Crazyhorse, Boston Review, Arts & Letters, and the Best New American Voices anthology.

Despite this Inevitability

The sisters were greeted in the vestibule by the funeral director, who wore a suit the color of caviar. A more striking tie would’ve helped, thought Lucille. She herself preferred vivid scarves and glasses with bold designer frames. “Welcome,” the mortician said, smiling and extending his hands in a Christly posture. Everything about his actions seemed choreographed, as though he’d learned to run a funeral home by watching an instructional video.

They’d gone to school together long ago. Back then, before he became known as “Digger,” he was Leonard, a shy kid who spent his free time in the school’s darkroom developing photos or in one of the sealed-off practice booths, urging shrill notes from his trumpet, a devotee of Chet Baker and Miles Davis. Back then he was going to be an artist, moving to SoHo and leaving their little town behind. As Lucille passed by on her way to swing choir, she would sometimes see him in the little carpeted cell with its music stand and upright piano, his face filled with blood in an effort to make what sounded to her, from the far side of the glass, futile noises. Of course, the same could be said of various relationships she’d had over the years—straining so hard for such meager results.

Digger touched their elbows. While Lucille flinched, Margo flushed despite herself. “Shall we?” he said, motioning toward the viewing room, a cheery place one might’ve found in a community center or one of the newer nondenominational churches were it not for the casket propped up front, nearly hidden by sprays of blooms and foliage. Jungle-like, Margo thought. Unkempt. Lucille strode forward, her erect bearing seeming to increase her height. Margo thought of herself as more aerodynamic, more centered, though she envied her sister’s legs, which were, even at her age, shapely. Margo disapproved of the bright room, partly because she considered death a somber occasion but also because the viewing chamber resembled a stage, and she hated anything that might elicit theatrics from her sister.

“They’ve done a nice job with the flowers,” Lucille said, pausing to admire them.

“Don’t you think they’re a bit much?” Margo said. The fragrances in the air—the flowers, Lucille’s perfume, Digger’s aftershave—conspired to muddle and distort things.

“Not at all,” Lucille said. “They’re lovely.”

“Yes,” Digger said, quick to agree. Margo noticed a tiny tinsel of sweat above his lip. “Candy’s very good at her work. We’ve never had any complaints.”

“I think they’re a bit much,” Margo repeated. She wasn’t typically so outspoken as this, so obtuse, but she felt licensed to it in her time of grief.

Lucille had finished her examination of the floral arrangements and approached the coffin while Margo and Digger hung back. Sometimes Margo noticed Digger wandering the aisles of the grocery store, a forlorn look on his face. Whenever she saw him loading canned chili and cereal and Hot Pockets into his cart, she wished she could cook for him. Cooking was her strong suit. Embarrassed, she glanced sidelong at the mortician, but he was staring straight ahead.

Margo’s thoughts were interrupted by Lucille’s shriek—not so different in its volume or tone from Digger’s trumpet. She turned from the casket, mouth pursed so that the fine wrinkles around it formed parentheses of rage. Whereas Margo was short, sturdy as a bull, Lucille was tall and thin as a stork, the two of them an odd menagerie. Lucille almost never allowed herself to be viewed in the act of eating. “You bastard,” she said, aiming her fury at Digger. When she took a step toward them, Margo felt herself and the undertaker shrink back, as though in the face of a gale force wind. “How could you screw this up?”

“What are you talking about?” Digger said.

“Don’t play dumb. It comes too naturally for you. Go fetch our mother.”

“Your mother? She’s right there.” He pointed toward the coffin.

“Lucille, what’s going on?” Margo asked.

“Look for yourself,” Lucille said.

The coffin lid was propped up to reveal the head and torso, but as Margo approached she found that this particular head and torso were not their mother’s. Not even close. At the time of her death Eleanor had shriveled to a husk, the bones of her hands and face asserting themselves, hair thinning, hazel eyes assuming a glassy, aqueous tint. The corpse in the coffin was a boy of seventeen or eighteen with a baby-smooth face and the buzzed hair and cauliflower ear of a high school wrestler, a handsome kid unmarred except for a small closed cut, barely discernible, above his right eye.

“Who the heck is that?” Digger said when he saw the boy.

Lucille snorted. “Why don’t you tell us?”

“I’ve never seen him before.” Digger leaned over the teenager. With his forefinger he lifted the boy’s shirt collar to check under the hood, so to speak. “Whoever prepped him does quality work,” he said, his professional interest piqued. Margo found she preferred the undertaker’s reaction to Lucille’s. Her sister had taught theatre at the community college for so long that she couldn’t separate the dramas of the stage from those of real life. She had become amplified.

“Leonard, I never took you for the vengeful sort,” Lucille said. “If anything, you were always too nice.”

“Seriously,” said Digger, his face flushed, “I’m not sure what’s going on here.”

“Leonard and I had an affair once,” Lucille announced, as if the mortician weren’t standing right there beside them. Margo pitied him, being a party to this. “It was just a fling, so trifling I never mentioned it to you. I thought it had ended amicably enough, but apparently Leonard felt the need to settle scores. I’m sorry you’ve been dragged into this.”

“I wonder if I should call the authorities,” Digger murmured.

“Just drop the charade,” Lucille said. “Take the boy downstairs and bring up our mother.”

“I don’t know where he came from!” Digger insisted. “This is your mother’s casket, the one you picked out. She was inside it when I brought it up.”

“He’s obviously going to push this as far as he can,” Lucille told Margo, “so let’s go find her ourselves.”

Margo frowned. If it was true this was some sort of vendetta, then it was one that could cost Digger his job. He didn’t strike her as being that unbalanced, though Lucille could certainly have that effect on men. She went to a door and thrust it open, Margo and Digger following behind. They passed through a kitchenette into a hallway containing a single walnut end table with a lamp. A black and white photo of a turnip hung on the wall. There were a number of closed doors, but without hesitation Lucille opened one, flipping the switch to bathe the stairwell in fluorescent light. A smell reached Margo, chemicals and cleaning agents, as well as the typical musty odor of an old basement. The stairs were lined in hard rubber.

“Look, you’re not really supposed to be down there,” Digger said, but Lucille ignored him, so he began appealing to Margo. “I honestly don’t know how something like this could happen.”

“Maybe your assistant made a mistake,” she suggested.

“Margo, don’t encourage him,” Lucille called out, heels echoing on the steps.

“I don’t have an assistant,” Digger said. “I do all the work myself. But I swear to you I’ve never seen that boy before.”

“He’s lying!” Lucille said. She had reached the bottom and was fumbling for a hanging switch.

“I’m not,” Digger said, indignant now.

“Lucille, think about it,” Margo said. “In a town this size, wouldn’t we have heard about a high school kid dying?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Lucille said. She moved from room to room, flipping on lights while Margo and Digger waited at the base of the stairs. The chemical smell was more prevalent now, and Margo wondered how Digger kept from being stampeded by loneliness down here among the freshly dead. She of course had her sister to keep her company. Why had none of the three ever married?

“Maybe one of your colleagues is pulling a fast one on you,” Margo suggested.

Digger shook his head. “We joke around, but nobody would dare pull a stunt like this. You’d lose your license. No, I think I’d better call the police.”

Margo watched Digger climb the stairs.

“Margo!” her sister hissed from one of the basement rooms. Margo had not dared look around, hoping to avoid the inner workings of the mortuary. “Where’s Digger?”

“He went to call the police.”

“Yeah, right,” Lucille whispered. “He’s probably making a break for it. Or he’s going to hack us up into beef tips and bury us down here.”

“That’d be tricky with the visitation in less than an hour.”

“Come here and look at this,” Lucille said. Margo found her in Digger’s darkroom. Trays were aligned on a crude wooden workbench where the mortician bathed and fixed his photos. Other images hung on a wire over Margo’s head. A reddish safelight fell over the contents of the room. Of the developed photos Lucille sifted through, the ones Margo glimpsed were fairly conventional—pastoral landscapes and portraits of farmers, scenes of a small town life that seemed already like the fossilized proof of something extinct—yet the photos fairly shone with Digger’s good will, and Margo was sure he had not perpetrated the fraud with her mother’s body, if fraud was indeed what it was.

Lucille paused at one of the photos. “I knew the little rat still had this,” she said.

Margo felt her face flush, for the portrait was of her sister sitting unclothed on a ladder-back chair in a suggestive pose. “Put it away,” she said. “I don’t want to see that.”

Lucille held the photo up to the light, ignoring her. “Not bad for someone my age, huh?”

“Good God,” Margo muttered. The subject matter of the photo placed it apart from the others, yet the differences went beyond that. Though Digger had clearly tried to bring his artistic sense to bear—the photo was tastefully done despite the nudity, in no way demeaning—it lacked his signature warmth, and Margo was certain the photograph had been Lucille’s idea.

“The police are on their way,” Digger said, near enough the sisters to see what they were looking at.

“What are we going to tell the guests?” Margo asked.

“Let me take care of that. Why don’t you two go on home and get some rest.” Digger held Margo’s gaze, and she looked away, embarrassed to be caught viewing this evidence of the mortician’s intimacies with her sister.

“You mean like you took care of our mother?” Lucille snapped.

Digger bristled. “Look, I did my best with Eleanor, as a favor to you. When I left for lunch today she was in her casket looking beautiful. At peace.”

“Be that as it may, I think we’ll stick around.”

They trudged upstairs to await the police, Digger leading them back into the viewing room. Everyone took a seat, but the silence was so freighted that Digger quickly stood again. “Would either of you like some coffee? I’ve also got grape juice or water.”

“I’ll have some coffee,” Margo said. She could smell it brewing ever since they’d arrived and had been craving a cup despite the heat outdoors.

“Nothing for me,” Lucille said.

Margo heard Digger in the sparse kitchen, banging cupboard doors. Maybe this was the moment, by Lucille’s way of thinking, where the mortician gathered together the cutlery he would need to slice the sisters into bits. He would probably also need a good-sized sheet of plastic to avoid staining his beige carpeting. The basement would’ve been the best place for a murder. Margo glanced at Lucille, who sat with her legs crossed, hands folded on one knee, staring off into space. Her expression was resolute to the point of statuary. With her upturned jaw, her ringlets of silvery hair, the jacket that fell from her shoulders, she most strongly suggested Washington crossing the Delaware. Margo stood and went to the coffin. The boy was still there. Despite this inevitability—he was dead, after all—she was able to startle herself anew because the space he occupied had been made for her mother. He was a stowaway.

“Waiting to see if he moves?” said Lucille.

Digger reappeared with his hands full. “Margo, here’s your coffee. I didn’t know if you take cream or not. Also, I found these cookies at Ikea. They’re very good. Please help yourself.” He sat the plate of cookies on one of the chairs.

“Who buys cookies at a furniture store?” Lucille said.

“I like them,” Digger said.

Margo took a couple cookies from the plate. “They are good,” she exclaimed.

“Lucille”—Digger was nearly pleading now—“are you sure you don’t want something?” Lucille merely grunted. They heard the door open, and Digger, who’d been hovering between the sisters, turned to leave. “It’s probably just the police,” he mumbled.

“What if it’s someone here for the visitation?” Lucille called after him. “I need to tell them what’s going on.”

Digger paused. “What is going on?”

“Our mother’s gone. Wait, not gone. Lost.”

“I don’t think we need to be premature here.”

While they were arguing, an ancient lady clad head to toe in purple wandered in. “Hello?” she said. It was a woman who had worked alongside Eleanor at the hosiery factory. “Am I the first one?”

“Yes,” Digger said, positioning himself alongside her, offering his arm as ballast, “and thanks for coming, but I’m afraid the visitation has been postponed.”

“Postponed?”

“Yes, there’ve been complications.”

The old woman appeared baffled. Lunch engagements were sometimes postponed, even weddings, but never, in her long experience, visitations. Either someone was dead or they weren’t. There were never delays. The door opened again, and this time a policeman entered, which seemed to further disconcert the woman, who was incrementally being steered by Digger back the way she had come. She tried her best at some decorum. “Yes, sometimes there are—complications, you said?”

“That’s right,” Digger said. “Complications.” Then he was out the door and down the walk with her. The police officer meanwhile ventured over to inspect the body in the casket.

“Ladies,” Digger said, reappearing, “could I impose on you to greet the mourners when they arrive while I talk to the officer here?”

“What should we tell them?” Lucille said.

“Just tell them—” Digger gave Margo an almost pleading expression, and she imagined herself his sole ally, though maybe that put things in too fanciful a light. “—tell them there are details that need ironing out, and we’ll reschedule as soon as we can.”

“Before he leaves,” Lucille said, nodding at the policeman, who now stood watching them with interest, “we want to give our statement.” Neither sister recognized the officer, a young man with rosy clean-shaven cheeks and short black hair gelled to a sheen. His skin was pale at both temples from the stems of his sunglasses.

The sisters took up posts on either side of the front door. As guests arrived, Margo and Lucille did their utmost to explain what was going on without explaining much of anything. Lucille, for all her bluster, didn’t want to be mentioned in connection with anything so unsavory as body-snatching and thus kept the matter of the missing mother quiet. The guests turned and shuffled back to their cars. A few felt the need to congregate on the sidewalk and front lawn, exchanging theories in low tones. Margo, accustomed to biking in the heat, was unbothered by the late day sun, but Lucille, to Margo’s secret satisfaction, was wilting under it, her makeup liquefying and shifting so that her face blurred to a Baconesque abstraction.

“I’m going to grab a bottle of water from the convenience store,” Lucille said, as the line of would-be mourners finally dwindled. “This heat is killing me.”

“Just go inside and ask Digger for some.”

Lucille shot her sister an irritated glance. “I’m never asking that man for another thing as long as I live.”

“Don’t be so stubborn. We can’t even be sure he’s responsible for this.”

“We entrusted our mother to him, and whether intentionally or not he lost her. He is most definitely to blame.” Lucille turned then and cut through the grass, vanishing around the corner of the building. Just as quickly she reappeared, half-walking, half-jogging in an ungulate gait, face gone chalky. At first Margo assumed it was the weather, but when Lucille grasped Margo’s arm, Margo realized something else was wrong. “Come here,” Lucille whispered.

Though there were still a few people left to greet and turn away, Margo thought it best to obey. They rounded the building and stopped.

“Tell me what you see,” Lucille said.

It was a quiet street lined with mature trees, Fifties ranch homes on one side, a municipal park on the other. A man walked his dog while mothers stood, arms crossed, watching kids navigate the park’s slides and jungle gym. An airplane knifed across the sky. Lucille’s Saab was parked on the street, under the shade of a giant sycamore, and Margo gasped when she saw it. “Lucille,” she said, “there’s someone in your car.”

“You’re right.”

“Well, who is it?”

“I have no idea.”

“How’d they get in? I thought you locked it.”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

The figure sat in the backseat, obscured by the lengthening shadows. “Can this day get any stranger?” Margo said, turning. “I guess we better go tell the policeman.”

Lucille once again clamped a hand over her arm. “How hot do you think it is in that car?”

“I don’t know. A hundred?”

“So why are they just sitting there?”

“Beats me,” Margo said.

“Let’s get closer.”

Despite her reservations, Margo allowed herself to be herded. When she saw the face in the window, she nearly swooned.

“That solves one mystery,” Lucille said, as it was clearly their mother sitting in the car.

“But why would someone stick her in there like that?”

“How can you be sure she didn’t do it herself?” Lucille asked as they drew nearer.

“What are you talking about?”

“She’s not dead.”

“But we have the paperwork,” Margo said, growing frantic. “We have signed forms. They’ve been certified.”

“Look for yourself,” Lucille said, for they now stood only ten or so feet from the car. “You can see her blinking her eyes.” A flock of small birds erupted into the sky, their shadows dimpling the pavement.

Margo visored her eyes with one hand and saw that Eleanor was indeed blinking, though otherwise she remained motionless.

“Doctors make mistakes all the time,” Lucille said.

“But what about nurses? Paramedics? What about us? We were there,” Margo said, because it was true; they had been there—at least at the end, when their mother’s kidneys had shut down. But it was also true they had not been there, not earlier. They had failed to recognize the symptoms of Eleanor’s hypertension, had failed to get her to the clinic, though they knew she’d never go on her own.

The sisters stood now on the sidewalk opposite the car, Margo reluctant to draw nearer. Their mother turned to look at them, raising her arm as if to wave, but her hand simply hovered in the air before dropping again to her lap.

“Come on,” Lucille said, starting across the street.

“Wait,” Margo said.

Lucille crossed to the driver’s side door and began sifting through her purse for the keys. “What?” she said, looking up.

“Doctors make mistakes. But what about Digger? He said he prepped her for the viewing. You know what that means. He would’ve drained all her blood.”

“Margo,” Lucille said, sighing. “Can we believe anything that man says at this point? Probably he snuck her out here to save his own skin.”

“But when? And what about your car? How would he have gotten her in there?”

Their mother was swiveling her head back and forth as though trying to follow the thread of the conversation, yet between her poor hearing and the tightly shut windows it was unlikely she could make out a word. “There were opportunities for Digger to copy my keys,” Lucille said, unlocking the door.

“But it doesn’t make any sense.”

“Look, are we going to get her out of the hot car or just stand here arguing?”

Margo felt uneasy, but she nevertheless started across the street. “Why doesn’t she get out on her own?”

“She’s probably too weak.” Lucille opened her door, and Margo saw her recoil.

“What is it?” Margo said, stopping.

“A strange smell.”

“What’s it like?”

“I can’t explain it. Come on, get in.”

Together they climbed into the car. The smell was more pungent than Lucille had let on, a commingling of the embalming chemicals Margo had noticed earlier and a charred odor, as when water is poured over a smoldering campfire, along with something else Margo didn’t want to admit, even to herself: putrefaction, strong enough to make her gag.

The sisters left their doors open to admit some fresh air. Margo noticed a flurry of movement in her periphery, yet when she turned to face her mother, Eleanor was absolutely still. She spoke to them. “Girls, could you close the doors, please?”

The sisters did as they were told. Instantly the temperature in the car dropped. Goose pimples rose on their bare arms, and their breath appeared, glazing the windshield. “Lucille, what’s going on?” Margo whispered.

“I’m not sure,” Lucille said, twisting in her seat to face their mother. “It’s good to see you, Mom.”

“Good to see you, Lucille.” Eleanor’s voice was recognizable yet wet and wavering, as though there were something caught in her throat.

When Lucille reached to pat her knee, the two women shared an expression of intense discomfort, as if they’d been shocked. Again Margo noticed the flutter of energy, yellowish bands of light encircling Eleanor for a moment. When Lucille withdrew her hand, the aura of energy vanished.

“Please don’t do that, honey,” their mother said.

Lucille nodded and began to cry.

“Let’s go,” Eleanor said.

“Shouldn’t we say something to Digger?” Margo asked Lucille, but her sister had already pulled away from the curb and was driving toward their mother’s house, sniffling and wiping her nose with the back of her hand. Margo felt that the silence, the coldness, the smell might envelop her if she didn’t speak up. “Mom,” she said, trying her best to be cheerful, “do you remember what happened?”

Their mother stared out the window, brow furrowing as she struggled to recall specific details. “I woke up,” she said finally, “in a room I didn’t recognize. There was a door and a stairway, so I made my way upstairs, through some more rooms. I didn’t see anyone. Once I got outside, I began to recognize things, but they seemed like memories from a long time ago. I walked for a while, reading the street names on the signs, but they weren’t familiar. Then I saw this car, this red car, and I remembered it. It seemed safe.”

“But how’d you get in?” Margo asked.

“I don’t remember.”

Eventually they reached their mother’s house, a one-story with vinyl siding and awnings over the windows. “Here we are,” Lucille said.

Their mother didn’t move. “No,” she said, shaking her head, “this isn’t where I need to go.” So Lucille pulled out of the drive and continued on while Eleanor directed her from the backseat. “Take a right,” she said when they reached the stoplight at Eighth, and they turned west toward the city.

“What about the boy?” Margo asked.

Her mother had been staring out the window but looked up, startled, when Margo spoke. “The boy?”

“Yes, at the funeral home.”

“Funeral home?” They passed a Jiffy Lube, a Dollar General, a veterinary clinic. The sun had expanded in its final moments to something overgrown and enflamed.

“You don’t know anything about the boy? A high school kid? Blond-haired? A wrestler?”

“Seems familiar,” Eleanor said but then lapsed into silence. Lucille began opening her window, but her mother told her to roll it back up.

“Mom, don’t you remember anything?” Margo said.

“Honey, I told you all I remember. It’s like I’ve come to some decision. I don’t know what, but it was something I’d been struggling with. Lucille,” she said, turning toward her other daughter, “you better exit here.”

Lucille took the freeway ramp and looped around toward downtown. Only as they neared the parking ramp did Margo realize where Eleanor was leading them—to the hospital where she’d been pronounced dead. Lucille found a parking space, and they entered the hospital on the ground level near the oncology wing. In the atrium was the snack kiosk where the sisters had gone for coffee, a respite from the cramped quarters of their mother’s room, the wheeled apparatus she was connected to with its bags of varicolored liquids, the vinyl-upholstered chairs, the bedside table with its ever-present pitcher of water.

They passed through to a bank of elevators. No one paid the women any heed. “Fourth floor,” Eleanor said, and Margo realized her mother didn’t want to touch the buttons. The fourth floor was the place where Eleanor had spent her last earthly hours, or so the sisters had supposed. As they exited the elevator and stepped foot in the hall, they began to encounter it, a multitude of whisperings.

“Where’s that sound coming from?” Lucille asked, alarmed.

“What is it?” Margo said, turning from side to side, peering into doorways. There were so many voices speaking now that they became indistinguishable, a jumble of sound. Though warmer, Margo now felt overcome by a leaden exhaustion and wanted nothing more than to lie down on the floor and sleep, yet their mother proceeded straight to her room near the end of the hall.

“Mom!” Lucille said as Eleanor entered the room. “You can’t go in there.” They were only a few steps behind, but by the time the sisters reached the door, Eleanor had already gone inside.

A nurse was present, taking the readings of an old man with a coffee-stained mustache and billowing hair. Margo remembered the nurse from Eleanor’s hospital stay. Her name was Stacia, Margo recalled, because Lucille had kept calling her Stacy and Margo kept correcting her. “Oh, hi, guys,” she said, looking up. “Did you forget something? Because usually the janitors are pretty thorough, so you might want to check down at the lost and found.”

“We’re just following our mother,” Lucille said, glancing around the room.

A surprised look crossed Stacia’s face. “What do you mean?”

“What do I mean?” Lucille said. “She just came in here. Mom?” Lucille began calling to her while searching the room and tiny attached bath, pulling back the shower curtain, peering on hands and knees under the bed. All the while, the room’s new resident regarded them without speaking. Margo stared at the floor, fearing that if she established eye contact with another human being, she might shatter.

Lucille shook her head at Margo. “I’m sorry we disturbed you,” Margo said to the patient. She realized she was speaking too loudly. He merely looked away. Who are they? she heard him ask as they left the room.

“It must’ve been a different room,” Lucille muttered.

“You go ahead and check,” Margo said. “I’ll wait right here.”

***

On this particular August night, the haze and clouds had peeled away, revealing a network of stars, the blinking red lights of distant aircraft, a parchment-colored moon. The sisters sat in Margo’s backyard. Lucille had accomplishments and past loves of which Margo might be jealous, but the evenings they spent together in summer were always at Margo’s place out in the country, and she suspected that Lucille envied her this.

“I think I’d better get drunk,” Lucille announced, upturning her second glass of wine and emptying the contents down her throat. They had not spoken about what had happened, which was this: Eleanor had vanished. Again. Lucille had hunted for her, room by room, until the sisters had finally been escorted from the hospital by a security guard alerted to their strange behavior. Margo, for her part, had been willing to stand against the wall and wait. She felt safer there, with her back to something solid.

Lucille got up and went into the house. “I just can’t figure it out,” is what she had said on the drive home. Otherwise she had been uncharacteristically silent. That terrible smell lingered in the Saab, and they opened the windows to dispel it, the car gradually warming again. Margo knew that her sister, for all her experience in the theater, the world of make-believe, was having a difficult time admitting to herself the presence of something mystical in the workings of the past few hours. It wasn’t a dearth of imagination that narrowed Lucille’s perceptions but rather her level of assurance. The world was a particular way for confident people, the way they made it, and any trembling of that perception might trigger a landslide. Margo, who had struggled with self-doubt her whole life, was more open to the eventuality of shocking revelations.

Lucille reappeared with the wine bottle, which was noticeably depreciated. Her glass still rested on the arm of the chair, so apparently she’d been drinking straight from the bottle. “There are a million messages on your machine,” she said. Margo hadn’t even bothered to check. Undoubtedly Digger had tried to call, possibly the police, probably some nosy people wanting to know why the visitation had been postponed. Something would need to be done about the boy in the casket. And when it came time for the funeral, who would be buried? The thought of it exhausted Margo.

Adjacent to Margo’s farmhouse stood a cornfield, a breeze passing through it. “Remember how Mom used to say that if you listened at night you could hear the corn grow?” This was when the sisters were children and lived in a house like Margo’s out in the country, surrounded by fields. Their father farmed a few acres of land.

“Yes,” said Lucille. She had suffered from headaches when she was a girl, and her mother would sit beside her, tucking the stray locks of hair behind Lucille’s ears as she lay in bed, a cool washcloth placed over her eyes. The windows were open, it was night, and mother and daughter would listen as June bugs skittered across the window screens. The cornstalks swayed in the breeze like tonight, but Lucille mistook the sound for growing pains, listening for the sound of her own tendons and bones and ligaments lengthening. “We’re just dumb, ugly animals,” Lucille said, staring up at the sky now. “We crawl out of the earth and one day crawl back into it, and years later when someone digs up some scattered bones he can’t even be sure what they belonged to.”

The night air smelled fresh to Margo, and she liked breathing it in. That was the first step, the breathing. The sisters would have more nights like this, in these chairs, under this bold moon, if they wanted them. “This is all just so new to me,” she said.