Introduction – The End
Lizzie stood over her mom’s headstone and tried to yell above the storm’s roar. Gusts tried to rip her away, tried to claim her small frame. The wind tugged against Lizzie. It pushed and pulled Lizzie until her footing faltered. She grabbed rough granite.
Overhead, a branch cracked and broke away, but the wind was so sideways strong that the branch disappeared as soon as it was free. Gravity suspended its force in storms of this magnitude. Lizzie made a calculated decision to give the communication attempt with her momma one last try, then she’d run for Bubby and the truck.
She leaned close to the fresh mound of dirt, which was really rough chunks and wedges of shiny burnt-orange southern clay chopped and churned by a local shovel from someone wasted on weed and love.
Lizzie’s momma would have wanted it that way. She had always told Lizzie that there was a pride and deep satisfaction that could only come from working with your hands in dirt. Lizzie hoped that her momma’s definition of dirt included clay. Find passion in the clay she’d say. The digger did.
With one small hand gripping her mother’s tombstone and the other cupped around the corner of her mouth for better sound projection, Lizzie leaned low. Even in the strengthening storm and sideways forces, Lizzie smelled dirt and death from below her face. Lizzie leaned so low that her lips touched wet the earth. She spat. Nothing came out and the clay taste remained. She took a deep breath and tried to ignore the chaos around her. She screamed with everything she had inside.
. . .
Lizzie sat at the large conference table opposite of the overly serious funeral director, Mr Blue Hegstrum, IV and his bored brat son of an assistant, who everyone referred to as Number V. Lizzie’s chair was so tall that her feet dangled, or maybe she was that short. Even when she slid down in the chair and pointed her toes, she still touched only air.
“Mr. Hegstrum, my Momma wanted a traditional burial.”
Number IV looked excessively understanding. “Many of our loved ones do, my child.” Number IV’s head tilted and nodded in pity. Number V blew a bubble and popped it, oblivious to the intimate discussions.
“Let’s forget traditional for now,” Number IV said. “Review this package, Ms. Lizzie.” Number IV slid a glossy package in front of Lizzy. She skimmed the contents, then explained “Momma wanted her carcass embalmed and shoved in a casket so pretty that whoever shoveled ceremonial dirt from above would be almost afraid to dump it. She pictured them saying, but it’s so pretty that I just don’t want to toss dirt on the lovely thing’. ”
“I see.” Number IV took the glossy multi-colored folder out of Lizzie’s tiny hands, wiped her finger smudges from the cover, and placed it in a drawer on top of other folders like it. “Then, may we suggest this approach?”
Number IV slid a new package in front of Lizzie. It was a package made of hand-pressed parchment and a hand-stamped logo. “It’s our most recent endeavor: our Earthen Orb offering. It consists of a temporary home for your loved one’s remains stuffed within our state-of-the-art foot-ball-sized bio-degradable orb. Since it’s 100% organic, it’s extremely expensive for the ingredients we had to keep out of the design.”
“It’s a hand-made orb designed to gracefully biodegrade over the progression of time. The result is new life in the form of a tiny sprout. We can provide the 100% natural orb-embedded seed for only $199.99 insertion fee. At some point in the future, you’ll visit to see a lovely living something growing from the elements, fed directly from the natural remains of your loved one.”
Lizzie swung her feet in the air. “I guess it costs a lot to stay natural, huh?”
“It does. Natural costs about five or ten times the traditional unnatural burial. But, when considering that each Earthen Orb is hand-crafted from all-natural, hand-foraged ingredients from the great state of Oregon, it’s basically a priceless work of earthen pod art.”
“As a random surprise,” Number IV continued, “Oregon foragers sometimes integrate a found object discovered in one of their hand-dug side-road ditches. It could be anything from a damaged orange traffic cone, to a dead and decaying racoon or rabbit. It’s a wonderfully surprising addition to our organic package.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Too bad your mother isn’t worth the uniqueness.”
“Oh, the real part of her is worth it,” Lizzie said, “but the decaying, decomposing empty outer shell part of her isn’t.”
Number V popped a bubble and stared at nothing in particular. Number IV rolled his eyes and looked at the large portraits of Numbers I through III.
“How much for a cup of the soup of the day?”
“I beg your pardon,” Number IV adjusted his tie.
“If you gave me a menu,” Lizzie said, “and I chose a cup of the soup of the day (not a bowl), how much would that cost?”
Number IV opened his standard tri-fold package and pointed at a column titled, “The Good stuff.” “Here you’ll see our most highly recommended options…”
Lizzie played with her pony tails. “Let’s skip the Good Stuff and go straight to the Average Stuff, or maybe the Below Average stuff. Here’s my question: What’s the minimum cost to get Momma from above the ground to below?”
The director frowned and pulled out a piece of wrinkled notebook paper from a grade school notebook. The spiral-torn paper flakes was still mostly attached, and a few paper fragments fell on the table. Number V blew them onto Lizzie and laughed.
“So, “Number IV spoke, ”heavy machinery to dig the gave and fill it would be — ”
“Number V,” Lizzie interrupted, “how much would you need under the table, take a shovel — you can even borrow ours — dig Momma’s grave, and refill it once she’s lowered in it?”
Number V thought as if asked for the one-hundreth-twenty-seventh number of pi.
“The heavy machinery option is much more efficient,” Number IV interrupted. “It allows many diggings and plantings during a single day, as opposed to the sweaty manual laborers who take hours to do a single grave. It’s easily worth the expense.”
“For you it is: Lizzie said, “but what about for the customers? We own one of the smallest fruit stands around. At one time, it was at the best exit back in the day, but now it’s overtaken by the fun-for-the-kiddies exits. At our place, we only get old people.”
Lizzie grabbed the forearm of Number V in mid-bubble. “Hey, think of it this way: how much pot would it take for you to dig Momma’s grave and fill it in for me?”
Number V spit out his gum into his palm and pressed it under the convergence table. For the first time today, Lizzie had his attention. “Uh… probably not much,” Number V said. Then he grinned. “Maybe two or three bags of pot and a kiss or two? Maybe three?” Number V giggled aggressively as if he were already high.
“You want to kiss my dead momma,” Lizzie asked, “two or three times? Nasty!”
“No!” Number V visualized the scenario. “Ew, no!” He wiped his tongue on his shirt sleeve, spit on the floor, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve again.
Lizzie grinned. “Then you mean you want pot and you want to kiss me, not my dead momma?”
Number V, still wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “Yeah, something like that.” Number V wiped his mouth and grinned.
Number IV rolled his eyes at the interaction.
“So, it’s a deal,” Number V asked, “a few bags of pot and you?”
“It’s a deal,” Lizzie said, “It’s pot and me to a point, the depth of which shall be negotiated later!”
Number V slapped the top of the convergence table in victory. “Deal!”
Lizzie slapped the table in response. “Deal!” The two executed an elaborate and complex high-five ritual to make it official.
“Great,” Number IV said. “Hegstrum and Sons has agreed to the care of your dearly departed one in exchange for a few bags of cannabis and a brief passionate interlude.”
“Yes,” Lizzie and Number V said in unison, and laughed.
“Then,” Number IV said, “may I suggest at least the purchase of a lovely fresh flower bouquet? The beautiful hand-chosen flowers are guaranteed to be killed on the morning of the funeral, thus ensuring the very freshest bouquet of dead flowers?”
Number V violently chewed on a new piece of gum, then tried in vain to blow a bubble. Lizzie giggled, then scratched the itch of her new tattoo, the one that she never told her mom about, and the one that Number V may discover soon.
. . .
Lizzie knelt over her mom’s stormy grave site. She bent so low that her lips touched clay. It was more of a texture than a flavor. She took the deepest breath and yelled into the orange slime one final time.
In the midst of the growing storm, Lizzie heard the same silence she’d heard when her mom had run into her bedroom a week earlier. On that night, Lizzie woke up to her mom speaking through gags and coughs and misty sprays of blood.
. . .
“I think something may be wrong,” her mom tried to say to Lizzie. She came into Lizzie’s bedroom in the dark, and woke her up speaking throat-filled gibberish. Lizzie turned on her pink and lime green animated fish lamp to see her mom’s bloody face choking face.
Her mom’s hands were cupped like a bowl under her bleeding nose and mouth. Her mom tried to say I won’t stop bleeding, but all Lizzie heard was, “eh… own… dop… bean”.
“Eh… own… dop… bean…” It was like one of their language-guessing games she and her mom loved to play, only this was not a game. Lizzie thought of the many times she’d left her damp towel at the side of her bed after showering. Her mom tried to teach her to hang it up so it wouldn’t stink in the morning, and the one time she obeyed and it neatly hung on the shiny metal bathroom bar was the one time she wished she’d left it in a damp pile at her bedside. This night of all nights had to be the one she’d decided to finally obey her mother.
Lizzie grabbed the back of her mother’s head and stuffed her frilly pillow hard into her mom’s face. Lizzie pushed with an excessive force in some bizarre attempt to save her mother’s life by blocking her airways, and to stop the bleeding by smothering her to death.
Her mom fought for freedom, but only briefly. She didn’t have much fight left. When Lizzie pulled back the pillow to check on her mom’s condition, her mom wasn’t there. Lizzie sat up in her bed and looked down at the side of her bed. Her mom’s bloody face was staring upside down at her own.
Just like that, it was over. It was the nearly same orientation now, Lizzie standing above her momma’s headstone looking down from above at her mom’s grave site.
“Momma? Are you there?” Lizzie hugged her stinky pillow and stared at her mother who blankly stared back up at Lizzie.
Somehow, the lamp turned over and the bulb shattered on the floor. Lizzie’s room went dark. Lizzie still heard that one-word call into darkness. She would hear it for the rest of her life in its various forms.
. . .
“Momma, answer me!”
The storm caused damage down the street. Something heavy fell. Somewhere a hurricane siren blew, first in short staccato bursts, then in a steady constant tone. In the mix was a staccato burst of a truck horn.
“Momma, Bubby must be terrified. You know how he gets in stressful times. I’ve got to go. We’ll drive as far north as we can tonight, and when the storm passes, we’ll be back to check the damage. Momma, I wish you’d answer me. Remember Bubby. He’s not taking this well. Talk to him if you’re able.”
Something significant broke into several large pieces. The individual sections were rolled and dragged by the end down the length of the highway, doing damage as it could. Lizzie ran toward the truck as if in an obstacle course on a reality show. She stayed clear of side-blown debris and broken things. The audience would have cheered at her agility.
Catastrophic damage was imminent, the radio had said. Bubby didn’t know what that meant but it sounded bad enough to lock the truck doors. He laid into the steering wheel horn with his forehead to block out the sound of the Stage V Hurricane that the radio said was approaching shore now. It was to alert Lizzie ro the world or whoever happened by.
Lizzie’s body slammed into the side of the truck. She’d reached her mom’s truck soaked but without any significant bodily damage. She tried the door latch several times, then Lizzie hammered on the driver’s side glass to get Buddy’s attention.
Bubby planted his forehead into the middle of the steering wheel to activate the horn. He wanted to alert Lizzie to come back, but he also wanted to block out the roar of the Stage V Hurricane that the radio said was coming ashore now.
Bubby’s sister screamed and cried and pounded to be let in. Bobby heard only the blare of the truck’s horn and the strong wind, which were at competing volumes.
Lizzie grasped the truck door lever and leaned against the side of the truck for protection. I stayed too long, Lizzie was bombarded by the elements, like a bird hunkered down on a flimsy twig in the midst of a hurricane.
I stayed too long, Lizzie thought. This is what I get for demanding a one-way conversation with a dead-and-gone person. Thanks a lot, Mom…
Lizzie kept a death-grip on the driver’s door lock. She pounded on the window in vain to get Bubby’s attention, even to the point of thinking she’s shatter the glass. Bubby’s forehead remained buried in the steering wheel horn. Debris ripped from the top of a gas station up the street. The debris rolled and tumbled and crashed and scraped and tore into the driver’s side of Lizzie’s Mom’s truck. Lizzie closed her eyes and never let go of the driver’s door lever.
. . .
Five-star story. 🙂