Tayler Heuston, California native, holds an MFA from North Carolina State University. She is a 2016 VCCA fellow, and winner of the 2015 Kore Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has also appeared in At Length, Carve Magazine, Two Serious Ladies, and NANO Fiction.
Common French Verbs
The socks had all turned pink in the wash but that seemed like the least of my problems that Saturday because I’d been writing Andy’s eulogy all night – or I’d been trying to write it all night but only had a bunch of things that weren’t appropriate for a funeral, but I thought maybe it’d be okay to get up there and just crack open my mouth, you know, unhinge my jaw, and cry for all that I was worth, which didn’t seem like a whole lot as I couldn’t even do the laundry right.
My mother had left me in the kitchen with my breakfast: eggs, toast, and milk. She had told me it was thirty minutes to “go time,” touching a manicured finger to her watch before disappearing into the living room to arrange the carpool and iron my outfit for the service.
My hair was combed and I sat in my robe at the counter, waiting for my skirt to be pressed like I was fourteen years old on the first day of school and being tidy would make up for all of my shortcomings. “Presentation is half the battle,” my mother always said. “Everything else you can fake.”
The first thing I noticed about Andy is that he looked like Pennsylvania, exactly like Pennsylvania in a way that was impossible to explain. It was mostly that he had this long, fair, scraggly beard, which looked very Amish to me. And he wore a lot of plaid and something about all that plaid seemed Pennsylvania-like to me. And he was very tall. Mostly, though, I think it was his Amish beard.
A lot of women descended upon my house the week following the accident. They filed in, took my hands, and offered variations on the theme, “It’s all happened so suddenly, it doesn’t feel real.”
I refrained from saying, “You’re telling me.” I didn’t have the energy to do anything but receive warm, overfamiliar embraces while my mother thanked everyone for coming.
Our place was two stories, so it fit all of our relatives nicely. That is to say: I didn’t have to see anyone if I didn’t want to. The ladies gathered in either the living room or the den, and no one aside from my mother and my sister Rosie knocked on my bedroom door.
Rosemary is my identical twin. We share dark brown hair, heart-shaped faces, and almond eyes. That’s where the comparison ends. She said “Mama” two weeks before I said “Nana” – as in “Banana,” not “Grandmother.” She walked first and swam first. In high school we both ran varsity track and she outstripped me there too. Even in practice, I ate her dust. She learned Portuguese and Spanish, travelled South America, and married her first sweetheart – a journalist who wrote an award-wining book about living with rebel soldiers in Argentina. He had died two years ago.
After we claimed Andy’s body, Rosie said, “I know the drill. I’ll take care of everything.”
The morning of the service she was at Holy Cross arranging things; otherwise she’d have pressed my skirt, dressed me, and made pancakes for the whole house. She was what my mother called a real “can-do” lady. Anything you asked of her, she said, “Can do.” I was not a real “can-do” lady, because for anything you asked me to do, according to my mother, I said, “Ask Rosie.”
The night before, I had heard my mother telling Aunt Rebecca, “You know, it’s a shame Katie isn’t more like Rosie. She’s never really been on her own. I don’t know how she’ll do it.”
Since then I’d been wondering what the “it” was – was “it” pay my mortgage, or talk down the cable company, or remember where to drop off the water bill, or cook for one, or cook at all, or turn the mattress, or vacuum up last week’s dust: Andy’s skin and hair and dirt? Or did she mean the great, big “it” – the terrible act of living after life has gutted you?
When I lived in my first apartment, my roommate Gretchen went away for the weekend. I sat up all night with a baseball bat in my bed and looked to Gretchen’s cats for moral support when the evening quiet descended and the noises of our place, with the warm wood floors and copper pipes, became clearer than the thrum of my heartbeat pulsing around my throat and ears. Then it was five in the morning and I had to reason with myself: “If there was going to be an intruder, they would have come in by now and murdered you. It’s time to go to bed.” Maybe that was what my mother was worried about?
I met Andy while he was farming goats in Switzerland, though as he told me, you don’t farm goats so much as tend them. He said it was something he was doing for the summer, “Something in between graduate school and whatever’s coming after.” I spent a day with him, watching the kids bleat and chew grass and dance around each other. We corralled them from one field to another, following the shade. We ate apples and cold, collapsed nun’s puffs with honey. There were mountains and wild flowers, and nothing about it felt real except when Andy touched my hand and leaned into me and said, “Can I teach you how to milk a cow?” And I laughed. I laughed at his gravity, at his sincerity, at his tenderness, at this man with his beard out in the field eating apples with his goats like something out of Hardy or Tolstoy. And he laughed too, in spite of himself.
My mother thrust her head into the kitchen. She said, “Rosie says the flowers have been arranged and Pastor Daniels will work some poetry into the service. It’s all going to be very tasteful.”
I said, “Sounds like Rosie’s doing a real bang-up job. Maybe we should book her now for our own services?”
My mother frowned, but then the phone rang and she stepped out of the doorway.
Rosie was my maid of honor and truth be told she can really put on an occasion. She has organized baby showers, retirement parties, and anniversaries. She has a preternatural sense of what is called for – live music or DJ, catered or potluck, indoors or outdoors, black tie or come-as-you-are. If she has ordered the flowers, they will be in full bloom and impeccably arranged; if she has selected the poems, they will be accessible and stirring.
I remember Andy and I were at one of those organic grocers', not a small co-op but a large, trendy one with mason jars for $1.49, which I bought to keep flowers in and broke with my excited packing when we moved into the house.
We were in the parking lot, holding hands. He stopped and pulled me into a kiss. And over his shoulder I saw the most amazing thing. It was a woman, in her sixties at least, lean and muscular and gray, and she opened the double doors of her van’s trunk and inside were all of these clothes, rolled up and layered perfectly together – filling the trunk from top to bottom. In fact, the whole van seemed to be filled with these rolls of clothes.
She closed the doors before I could turn Andy around to see, but I told him about it in the car and we spent the rest of the afternoon in the garden arranging the soil to receive tomato seeds and strawberry stalks, and talking about the old woman and her car full of clothes. Squatting down into our haunches, hands and arms dirt-smudged, I said, “How does she find what she’s looking for?”
Then he said, “But, how does she see to drive? How does she see out of the windows?” There were no answers, only questions.
The women in the living room, no doubt led by my mother, must have had a vote and decided it was off with the kid gloves at five minutes to “go time,” because Aunt Linda walked into the kitchen, all business, and asked me, “Are you going to finish that?”
I set my pen down over the legal pad filled with cramped script, my Unabomber penmanship as Andy liked to call it. I don’t know if I sounded small and helpless, or empty, or full of hardness when I looked at my Aunt Linda and said, “I can’t. I don’t know what to say.”
She stepped forward and then back like she was caught in the same liminal space that I was, like there were no words, no sublime acts, no intentions good enough, like everything was lost in translation. She said, “Oh, honey. I meant the eggs.”
I said, “I’m still working on them.” I lied – they were too salty and I wasn’t going to eat anymore.
Aunt Linda nodded and left.
Sometimes it is 7am and you can’t taste anything but salt and that somehow seems fitting because it’s not fitting at all, and you wish the toast had been burned or the eggs overcooked but really it’s just this pound of salt on your tongue, and you’d like to throw the bowl across the room because no one is in the kitchen to see you do it, but you know they might hear it, hear the loud hard ring of a heavy ceramic bowl, pottery someone handmade in Mexico, given to you and your dead husband by Aunt Julia who has always had such great taste, they might hear that bowl hit that wall and know that it is the sound of your grief hitting the wall like someone has rung an iron bell and said, “Come and get it.”
My mother came into the kitchen again, holding out the skirt and a blouse for me to take. She said, “We don’t have a lot of time.”
I took the clothes and dropped them on the counter. I said, “Will they start without me?”
My mother sighed. She said, “Just once, you know, we could all do without your sass.”
I took the clothes upstairs and dressed myself. My mother fixed my hair when I came back down, then ushered me into the back of an SUV. No one spoke to me, but Aunt Rebecca said, “Looks like rain, later.” My mother agreed.
At the service I sat in the front pew between my mother and Rosie. The pastor began, “Today we gather to mourn the passing and celebrate the life of Andrew Patterson.”
When the pastor invited people to share their memories, Andy’s father, his brother, and his college roommate each spoke. They all said, “Andy was my best friend.” By the time Rosie went up, I couldn’t hear most of what was being said. Blood pulsed in my ears, and I balled up my skirt in my hands. I took long, quiet breaths until it was over.
She delivered the last line of the last eulogy for my husband: “He will be missed.” Then the pastor led us in a closing prayer. As the organ sang, the men rose to take their ends of the casket and we walked out in a neat procession.
There’s not much to say about the gravesite. It was cold, but it didn’t rain. Andy’s casket was lowered into the ground. The pastor threw a fistful of dirt over it. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” And we all went home.
Andy died in a car crash. His sedan was sideswiped on the freeway. It rolled two times and stopped beside the center divide. The emergency responders pronounced him DOA. When I heard that he was dead, I thought, “Oh, shit.” I thought this because there is not one special thing you are supposed to think when someone you love is dead. Isn’t that what everyone says? Everybody’s grief is different.
Back at the house I sat in the living room. Andy’s family and mine mingled, talking over plates of macaroni salad and cold-cut sandwich wraps. The young men took their six-packs of beers to the deck. They stood around the grill, like it was Fourth of July and any minute Andy would emerge from the kitchen with a plate of hamburger patties ready to go.
Aunt Julia sat down beside me. She put a glass of water in my hands and rubbed my back. She said, “It was a beautiful service.”
I thanked her.
She said, “Rosie did such a lovely job.”
I looked around the room, also arranged by Rosie. There were chairs lining the edge of the room for people to sit and eat, but leaving space to stand and walk through the room to the bathroom or the kitchen. Across from me, my uncle Milton laughed at something Aunt Rebecca must have said. He smiled and took a bite of orange ambrosia salad dotted with red cherries. Everything had been thoughtfully put together so that everyone here could be at ease. Not just the seating, but the soft glow of each lamp warmed the place and the music was quiet enough to be discrete but loud enough to prevent cold silences. I hadn’t been consulted about any of these things. It had all been done for me. I couldn’t be trusted to turn on a few lamps, set down a few chairs, or put on Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits. A knotted feeling rose up my back and spread into my shoulders.
“You’re very lucky to have a sister like her,” Aunt Julia said.
I threw my glass to the ground. The carpet dulled the sound of the splinter, but it broke into several pieces. Rosie and my mother materialized before me. Aunt Julia pressed her hand to her chest as she told the room, “I don’t know what I said.”
Rosie stooped to pick up the larger pieces. She said, “Be careful, Katie.”
I looked down at the crown of her perfect head, every hair smooth and in place. She gathered the shards without a moment of hesitation. She would always know what needed to be done and she would always be able to do it.
“Stop,” I said.
My mother said, “Let’s not make a scene.”
I said to Rosie, “Leave the goddamned glass in the goddamned carpet of my goddamned house.”
My mother said, “We’re only trying to help you.”
The room was silent, waiting. I walked over the glass, past Rosie still kneeling on the ground, and out of the front door.
I went down the street to the neighborhood park. I sat on a bench facing the playground. Two girls in denim jackets and cotton dresses played tag. They squealed and collapsed on the grass, overcome by laughter and the joy of the chase. Two best friends in barrettes, rolling in the grass on a Saturday afternoon. I put my head into my hands and closed my eyes.
Andy took me to a small village outside of Lausanne for our second date. We walked along a cobblestone street. He gave me French lessons, firing off one verb after the other. He had learned them alphabetically from a handbook. Essayer, to try. Être, to be. Échouer, to fail. Faire, to do. Faillor, to need.
When Rosie took her place on the bench beside me, I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t have to – she spoke first.
“I had no idea what to do with Marty after they cremated him. They gave him to me in a box and showed me a lot of options for ‘vessels’ but nothing felt right. So I left,” she said. “When I got home, I didn’t know where he belonged in the house, so I put him in the bedroom closet for a while.”
Rosie used to keep large dogs, mastiffs with square-stone heads and heavy paws. When the last one, Easy, died, she took him to be cremated too. At the veterinarian’s she found the options for urns to be very tasteful, not too pricey, and just big enough.
She said, “I bought two and had them each engraved ‘And I heard the angels sing.’”
When Rosie tried to pour Martin into his urn, the urn was too small and he spilled out. He spilled out and over the dresser. He spilled into the carpet. He spilled into the air and she breathed him in and coughed and cried and did what she could, coughing and crying as hard as she was, to clean him up. What was salvageable went back into the shoebox.
She said, “In the end, I had him in three places: the urn in the living room, the shoebox in the closet, and the vacuum cleaner bag that I kept under the sink for a while before it got damp and I had to throw it out. I figured Marty wouldn’t mind it all that much because I had really tried.”
Then, almost laughing, she told me, “You know, he hated me eating in bed and watching that terrible dating show. He used to say, ‘Rosie, over my dead body.’ So, whenever Monday night rolled around, I’d take him out of the closet and put him right into my lap and eat my dinner and say, ‘Look, Marty, over your dead body!’”
She took my hand. She said, “It’s an impossible thing. No one else understands.”
Rosie was tired, her face lined with grief and frustration and fear. She would never show herself as less than capable to anyone else, that she would be composed and appropriately cheerful when we returned to our friends, our aunts and uncles, our mother waiting in my house. But by ourselves, now, we could be small and full of sadness. We had an intimacy in which no one else could share.
I said, “I just want him back.”
She said, “I know.”
We watched children on the playground come and go, some with their mothers, some with their fathers, and some on their own. They ran around the swings and jumped off the monkey bars. They were daring, those kids.
“Full of piss and vinegar,” I said.
We walked home after the sun went down. The road was black, but the streetlamps cast orange, ghostly light over the cement. If you looked up, you could see the blossoms of the plum trees lining the sidewalk shiver in the wind.
Andy once told me that the French don’t say, “I lost something.”
They say, “A part of me is missing.”