Alan and Darla have fallen under the influence of Mr. Brinks, their history teacher, who himself is a follower of a radical right-wing German cardinal believed by some to be plotting a schism against lefty Pope Francis and now removed from his seat in Cologne and banished to a fourteenth century abbey near Oberammergau. From the crumbs of information Alan throws at me, Mr. Brinks believes the growth of Catholic theology ceased with the issuance of the Nicean Creed in 325 AD and all subsequent interpretations of the New Testament, including all expressions of papal infallibility, are heresy. Also heretical was the Church’s relatively recent acknowledgement that cremation of the deceased does not violate the doctrine of resurrection of the body.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “The dead turn to ashes anyway. What’s the difference if we just speed it up?”
“We don’t incinerate what God made in His image,” Alan said with one of his infuriating Tea Party smirks.
“Do you practice that look in the mirror?”
“Only when I’m praying for your heathen soul.”
“Wiccan soul if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, sorry, you and the trees.”
“Yes, me and the trees.”
In fact, our first idea was to ship back Mom’s body for burial in Dad’s family plot in the cemetery near Route 17. Dad asked a Spanish language teacher at the high school to get on the phone with him to work out the details with the folks in Oaxaca. Language proved to be the lesser barrier. A funeral home director they found on the Web said he would need to receive a five hundred dollar wire transfer before he would even speak to the hospital. After two days of silence, he got back to us to say the policía had decided the death was suspicious and an autopsy was required. Dad got through to the policía who told him there was never any talk of an autopsy, but that the local health department could release the body for international transport only after running tests to ensure Mom’s remains were not diseased. The phone number they received for the health department connected to a depot where sanitation trucks were garaged. After many retries, they reached el jefe de policía, who informed them that the town had no health department and he did not recognize the name of the person who told them it did. However, he said he was sympathetic to our sorrow and for a contractor’s fee he would see what arrangements could be made on our behalf. Dad told el jefe he’d get back to him and called the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, which, he acknowledged, should have been the first call he made. He was referred to the Mexico City office of a U.S. law firm. Following another wire transfer and a new series of calls to a bi-lingual attorney, we received an email with a comparison of the costs of shipping Mom’s body or her ashes back to Saddle River. After a heated discussion about dogma, Dad put it to Alan this way – forego your first year at Amherst for Bergen Community College, and he’d be happy to have the body shipped. Hence, the smaller DHL delivery.
That evening, I stepped off the bus near the downtown soldiers’ memorial and walked the remaining two miles home. The walks started once I got back to work after my bereavement leave first because I dreaded reentering the house of death and then because the two men inside it fully expected me to cook their dinners even though they got back hours before me and seemed perfectly willing to tolerate gnawing hunger rather sully their manhood by slapping some cutlets on a tray and sticking it in the oven. That was Mom’s doing, the two spoiled brats she left me along with a wardrobe packed with cabana slacks that I wouldn’t wear even if they weren’t four sizes under my minimum. Then again in the warm May evenings the walks were trimming me down, and what would it hurt to try on a couple of the soft linen ones with the stretchy waistbands? That’s the way my mind went on the walks, latching onto something and letting go and floating untethered before grabbing onto something else, anything that was more stable than me, Mom’s slacks, Anne Rice – I was deep into Lestat – my work at the archive, lately recovered 16 mm footage of V-E +1, Sam Fuller’s concentration camp documentary.
None of it could block my thoughts of her. I say “thoughts” even though there was not much in the way of thoughtfulness. Rather it’s me, the disembodied me, stumbling through my memories of her with no clue about where I was headed. The memories might string themselves together in the order they happened or in the reverse order or a back and forth between the two, some kind of sequence I could identify if I tried. But more often they just sprawled randomly over time, over our lives together, one scene springing from another because of a related word or emotion, usually rage or terror or black despair, or, rarely, something sweet or funny like when she pulled her broccoli mushroom quiche out of the oven way before it was cooked and spun too quickly to show Alan and me, launching our dinner into the air and against the kitchen wall. We froze, expecting the toxic eruption. Instead, after briefly considering pastry pieces and filling dripping into the toaster, she turned to us with a goofy grin.
“Pizza Hut?” she said brightly.
Whether the memories made some kind of sense or were just snapshots tumbling from my head, there was always a stop at Hospital General Dr. Aurelio Valdivieso in Oaxaca. That memory, Mom gurgling through a respirator tube inserted into her throat in a minor tropical city, is not a memory at all because I was never there. But I feel I know the place, as much as anyone can from the few photos on Google Images. From the outside it looks small for a hospital, four or five floors assembled into a basic white block, closer in appearance to an elevated parking structure at a suburban mall than a regional hospital. On one exterior wall there is red cross next to a stunning representation of Ixchel, the Mayan jaguar goddess of midwifery and medicine. There are corridor shots, smiling staff in their blue scrubs and unsmiling patients waiting on gurneys. Another patient is shown being rolled into or out of the donut-shaped MRI scanner. It’s a teaching hospital so there are white-jacketed interns taking notes in auditorium seats before a lecturer. And then there’s the patient ward, a long, wide, sunny room with beds lined up against the walls and facing each other. The beds are unoccupied and carefully made and the photo is black and white, all of which suggest to me that the shot was taken before the hospital first opened for business.
I looked at the ward photo most of all because that’s where they placed her. Even for so small a hospital, there must be some single rooms or doubles, but my mother didn’t qualify. If I can say this without sounding ungrateful for the efforts the people in Oaxaca made to save her life, my suspicion is that my mother’s condition – opioid-induced coma – had less to do with where she was placed than the amount of cash, credit and treasure that accompanied her once the ambulance delivered her to Hospital General Dr. Aurelio Valdivieso. Given the role of currency in the post-mortem negotiations, I was able to envision events. Probably she was found unconscious by the hotel cleaning staff. After that, there was a succession of parties led by the hotel manager, then hotel security, the policía and the emergency responders. As I saw it, they all took their cut so that when Mom was finally dropped off, all that remained was a couple of U.S. tens, one maxed out Discover card and a remarkable absence of jewelry for a woman who so favored such accoutrements.
The walk from the CBD takes me past the Episcopal Church where Mom attended her AA meetings. The church had been rebuilt twenty years before after a fire caused by an electrician whose cigarette ignited coolant that was leaking from the antiquated central air conditioner consumed all organic matter and converted the roof’s steel I-beams into overcooked French fries. I was in the first grade in the public school, one long block away when classes were cancelled as news helicopters circled all afternoon above the inferno. The replacement church is a visual slight-of-hand, the nineteenth century exterior replaced by pale faux blocks alternating with flat concrete walls. This was intended to evoke the quarried granite of the original, but it ended up looking like a project that ran out of money.
There were hugs and so forth when Mom told us she was rejoining the group, but for Dad and me it was mostly pretend. She’d done AA twice before and the most we could hope for this time around was a temporary break from coming home and finding her passed out on the kitchen floor or the rhododendron bushes flattened where she backed up – and left – the SUV or, often, not finding her at all. But she surprised us. Mom was a social drinker, a barfly who loved seeing others getting as juiced as she. This go-around at the church she lucked upon the moral equivalent, two local moms who matched her in every critical department, under fifty, abused as a child, familial alcoholism, good professional job sacrificed for motherhood, a husband who wouldn’t go dancing. It was for a time, a thing of perverse beauty, friendship founded on shared trauma. Sisterhood, Starbucks, sobriety. Mom was the newcomer and when she got her one-year button, the three of them decided to celebrate at a seaside resort on the Yucatan. She dropped the news over dinner. Alan didn’t get the implication and kept eating. Dad’s mouth fell open, disgustingly, mid chew. My fork slipped from my hand.
“What?” she said.
“Did you find a dry resort?” I asked.
“There are no dry resorts on the Yucatan peninsula.”
“Why do you hate us,” I said, lower lip aquiver.
“Listen, all of you, don’t worry. I have a plan.”
“I’m not worried,” said Alan.
“Of course not,” I said. “You’ve got St. Augustine. The rest of us have to live today.”
“See, that’s your problem, Becca. Fatal nearsightedness.”
“And how far can you see with your head up your ass?”
“Stop it,” Dad said, barely audible.
“You’ve given up,” I said to him. “And you too,” I said to her.
“I haven’t given up,” said Alan.
“Okay, then do something.”
“She’s in God’s hands. We all are.”
I stood violently, knocking over my chair. Mom looked at me sadly, as if I was the problem.
“Be sure to send us a postcard,” I said and stomped off to my room.
She didn’t send a postcard, but she did have a plan. We had to put together the pieces, a little from her two friends, who otherwise claimed vast ignorance about what Mom had in mind, a little from the policía in Cancún and Oaxaca, a little from the hospital staff, and a lot from the search history on her laptop. The plan went into effect quickly. Within hours after the three swingers arrived at the resort, Mom vanished. Her friends contacted the policía who found that she had taken a cab to the local bus station and bought a ticket to the west coast, two days and seven hundred miles, defying destruction on the savage mountain roads winding down to Oaxaca. Insert search history here. It seems she had located some semi-outlaw pharmaceutical outfit in Oaxaca where no prescription was needed to acquire as much Mumbai hydrocodone as her stricken heart desired. She proceeded with her purchase straight to a nearby hotel along with a bottle of Agave de Cortes (empty and evidence) and the party for one commenced. Was this, Mom’s supernova, intentional? I think it was, but Dad said she would have left a note, which she didn’t, unless of course that too got swept up in the thievery.
The chimney of our house peeked over the treetops at the crest of the hill I was climbing, past the town park and its splendid elm – two hundred years old, a survivor of Dutch elm disease, and still blooming like a young virgin. I reviewed my dinner plan, a green salad, a baguette I picked up on the way to Port Authority, and part two of the chile I had slammed together from leftovers. It filled the biggest pot we had and I was hoping there would be a part three. Overall, not a bad menu for two galoots with cutting-board phobia. I’ll give them this, they never complained or even asked for anything special. They just sat and ate and then cleared the table. Afterward Alan fled to Darla’s house allegedly to study. But I knew they were both fully in the grip of senioritis and were probably getting together to read the letters of St. Paul, which, as far as I knew, were not on any of their finals. Dad and I parked ourselves wearily in front of the wide screen and alternated between the NBA playoffs (his choice) and Two and Half Men reruns (mine) and then moped off to our rooms.
The DHL box had been moved inside and sat unopened on the floor near the hat tree. I’m a sweater, to be more precise, a head sweater, and the instant I saw the box, the mild dampness that had been stirred up by my walk swelled into droplets that formed somewhere near my temple and slid down the side of my face, past my ear, pooling in the cavity between my clavicle and neck. On the living room couch Darla was beside Alan and, seated oddly on the coffee table and facing them, was a man who looked only marginally older then they and who could be mistaken across a room for Andrew Garfield. He stood at once and proffered his hand.
“Phil Brinks, cult leader,” he said.
“Becca, woodland sprite,” I said, dragging my moist forearm across my moist brow.
Darla, small and swarthy with an eyeliner fetish, allowed her jaw to drop. Alan tightened his.
“Alan asked me to come over to discuss your mother’s remains,” said Phil Brinks.
“He came home, saw the box and then went back to school for a swim,” said Alan. “He said you and I could decide about the ashes. He said he would be thankful if they weren’t here when he got back.”
I nodded. I knew this.
“We were praying for guidance,” Alan added.
“And then you showed up.”
“Now, Alan, remember what we talked about,” said Phil Brinks.
What they had talked about, according to Phil, the idea they proposed to me, was a brief ceremony wherein each would say a few words and then we would drive to Patterson and cast Mom’s ashes into the Great Falls. Since this operation was outside the tiny circle of things they believed in, they would refrain from religious expressions, and, therefore, hoped I would join them. The offer was both a courtesy and a practical consideration.
“Given that the ashes are profane, we cannot handle them,” Phil explained through a soft smile. “So we thought you could do that.”
“Given that this happens to be my mother, I want to pick the spot for the ceremony.”
Phil considered this, then said, “Of course.” Alan and Darla watched me grimly but raised no objection. There was something unnatural about Phil talking to me on my brother’s behalf. Still, it was easier than Alan and I finding new ways to insult each other.
A short time later, the three of them trailed me back to the park. They had watched from a distance as I sliced open the box with a steak knife and withdrew the cremation urn, blonde wood marbelized with black veins. It was surprisingly heavy, more than I’d expected from ashes, and I pressed it to my chest, folded within both arms. I cried, but kept it quiet. Since they were behind me they couldn’t see the tears that had made it all the way to the tip of my chin and couldn’t be wiped away. Phil caught up with me.
“Are we headed to the old tree?” he asked, politely not noticing what a mess my face was.
“A little more than a guess. Alan told me your group meets there.”
“My coven. Is it sinful to say the word?”
Phil chuckled. “What does a coven do?”
“Mostly we dance. Once a town cop showed up and wanted to know if we had a public gathering permit. I asked him when do you need a permit? He said for gatherings of over twenty people. There were eight of us there, which I pointed out to him. He said maybe more people were going to show up. I said, nope, this is all of us. He said, well, if twenty show up, you need a permit. And then he left.”
“Some monotheist likely complained.”
“That’s what we figured.”
It had been a wet spring, the grass under the elm’s branches was high and thick and good for sitting although Darla took out a hanky and actually wiped the grass where she placed her narrow butt. Four wasn’t enough to form a circle, which I decided was okay because we weren’t a circle, not my idea of one. Whatever we were, I placed the urn in the middle of it. This caused every movable part of Alan’s face to congregate into a world-class frown, so I took back the urn and put it at my side. We debated who should start because nobody wanted to. Alan said I was pro-cremation so it was on me. I said the meeting was their idea. Alan said I had picked the place. I said Alan was the literary one. Darla nodded and squeezed Alan’s forearm.
“Oh, alright,” I said. “Mom had her flaws. Period. She did her best. She didn’t burn down the house. Nobody’s in jail. She loved us. I always thought she loved me the most. Then I found out Dad and Alan felt the same way. Nice trick.”
Alan said she was amazingly good at math and basically carried him on her back through Calculus. Darla said a couple of words in Tagalog, and then the little dear declined to translate. Phil said he never met her and recited Poe’s Eldorado. The whole memorial took under ten minutes. As we climbed back up the hill, Phil offered to take the urn.
“Are you sure?” I said.
“I think charity here trumps canon.”
Isn’t it cool when you can make up the rules as you go along? I thought, but handed him the urn anyway.
“Eldorado was a nice touch,” I said. “Why did you pick it?”
“It’s the only poem I know by heart.”
At the house, we piled into Phil’s Corona. Alan and Darla huddled in the back with their phones, probably exchanging condemnation texts. I sat up front with the urn secured between my thighs. The wood was warm, hot almost. A message from Mom?
“Alan tells me you work for Martin Scorsese,” Phil said.
“I work for the university. He funds some of our restorations.”
“I liked Kundun.”
“Yeah, that was something,” I said, watching myself lie. Kundun was near the bottom of my Scorsese list, the sorry consequence of a director who thinks he can do anything.
The falls is a Rocky Mountain natural wonder that appears to have been plopped into the center of eastern urban blight. In silence, we walked up to the pedestrian bridge over the Passaic. A park ranger standing mid-span watched us approach.
“She’s not going to let us do it,” I mumbled, concealing myself and the urn behind Alan.
“I got this,” Phil whispered, going ahead to meet the ranger, booming in his classroom voice that he was a teacher and we were his students and that he was delighted she was still around so late in the day because he had an important question. She followed him further down the bridge where he pointed downriver, away from us, to the historic hydropower house, talking fast. The ranger nodded, her gaze following his finger. I acted quickly, unscrewing the top of the urn and dumping the grey remnants of my mother’s existence over the railing. The spray from the Great Falls blew wisps of her back into our faces.
“That was right out of The Big Lebowski,” said Darla as we headed back to Phil’s car.
I looked at her. It was one of the few times I ever heard her say anything that wasn’t about the second coming or the second amendment or missionary work in South Sudan.
“Yes,” said Alan. “But not as funny.”
The next Monday night while I was flossing my phone chimed with a call from P. Brinks, who got smoothly to the point.
“They’re showing the restored version of One-Eyed Jacks at Film Form next Saturday. It was done by Spielberg and Scorsese, or maybe just paid for by them. You’ve probably heard about it.”
“I have,” I said. This was true, but not the whole truth, which was that I was at the restoration’s premier hosted by Marty at Lincoln Center. But I didn’t want to take the wind out of Phil’s sails.
“Would you like to go with me?” he asked.
“Sure. But I have a question.”
“Ah, the question. I’m ready, I think.”
“Is this the start of the conversion campaign.”
I sensed that easy smile through the phone.
“Well, I guess depends on you,” he said. “But I have to warn you. I’m pretty happy with my current faith.”
That was the moment I decided to stop lying about movies.