It is not often that you stay to watch a vaulted coffin be lowered into the dark, freshly churned earth. You stare into the rectangular abyss and it stares back, ready to swallow.
But I stay. I have to stay.
I press back against the blue spruce and its needles pierce through my father’s jacket and into my arms, but I don’t mind. Those prickles ground me. They tell me that I can still feel even as they depart—family and friends, those strangers with wet smiles. They leave my father, brother, the pastor and me behind and take their silence with them. I see how it clings to them, haunts them. It hushes whispers of formalities and the clinking of forks against plates of half-eaten food served in the basement of a rural Iowan Lutheran church.
I huddle under the pine as a November gust pushes the smell of dirt and grass into my nose, lifts the hem of my black dress, and I wonder if they will remind me of our similarities. They will reach for my hair, pulling gently on a copper lock the same shade as my hazel eyes, and they will smile. You’re so beautiful, they will say, a carbon copy of your mother.
But I don’t have her freckles.
She had them in multitudes. They spread across her arms, shoulders, cheeks, and chest; only where there are scars is this sea of freckles divided. But she envied the simple dusting across my nose and shoulders that was so easily covered by foundation, wishing she had either my peaches and cream complexion or that her freckles would join together to form an even tan. She always said it as she passed me in the morning. Me at the mirror, liquid liner in my hand, and her leaning against the doorframe, just watching. She touched my hair and held it against her own.
“I wish I had your color,” she said. The thought makes my eyes hot. I wipe at them with wind-chilled fingers and press in, igniting shades of blue, purple, and red. Open again.
Empty stalks of corn bend with the breeze and a white pickup slowly encroaches. The gravel crackles under its mud-covered tires and leaves flattened grass in their wake as it rumbles closer to the abyss. It parks and idles, something cylindrical rolling in the bed coming to a clanging halt. A man steps out and I pull the jacket tighter around me. He’s the one I saw standing against the edge of the field. He leaned against his truck, his tanned arms peeking around the cuff of his brown leather jacket, and watched, a silent observer, as the pastor committed my mother to the earth. I did not recognize him but I wonder if his eyes, too, were on me.
He rounds the truck and I step closer to my father, gripping his elbow. The man pulls out four metal rods and thick straps and throws them over his shoulder before methodically placing them on the grass next to a mechanism I hadn’t noticed until now. He slides two long, thin rods into the metal frame surrounding the coffin and they lock into place with a soft click. My father squeezes my hand before he steps away, sidling up to the man. Dad speaks to him, asking questions about the mechanics of the winding mechanism straddling the open grave and the man, equally soft, illustrates his method of attaching the straps to the thicker rolling cylinders. Dad steps back as the man stands again, this time to demonstrate how to slide the straps under the coffin, perpendicular to the metal frame. “This keeps it stable,” the man says, gesturing to the straps. My father nods and his lime-green tie, her favorite color, sways. With everything in place, the man kneels and begins to wind her down.
He pauses, looking up at my father. “Would you like to? Sometimes people like to.”
My brother’s jaw clenches as my father kneels and grips the handle in his calloused hand, draws in a deep breath, and begins to move.
I wonder if the pine needles are piercing into the flesh of his knee.
Mom and I always planned on writing a book together. We never discussed whether it would be long or short, full of prose of poetry, or if it would stick to fact. All we knew for certain was that she would provide the stories and I would transform them into engaging exposition.
“But what would we be writing about, exactly?” I asked her one summer afternoon. We were home alone together, a common occurrence when she worked the late shift, and still in our pajamas, both nestled in our own chairs as Supernatural played in the background. I squashed my father’s voice as it nagged at the back of my mind. Get showered, get dressed, it said, we might go out for lunch. Sometimes we did, but Mom and I were willing to blow him off this time. We wanted to bond over two brothers killing demons, vampires, shapeshifters, and their own emotional well-being and admire how sexy they looked doing so.
“Well,” she started, holding up the remote to pause the scene of Dean, the older brother, hacking into the neck of a vampire. Her eyes lifted in thought. “We should write about my life as a Wal-Mart pharmacist in Marshalltown, Iowa.” She grinned when I laughed. “I have the stories.” She knocked on her temple. “All you have to do is write them down.”
I snorted. “Yeah, and make them sound pretty.”
“Oh.” She leveled me with a faux-serious expression, her mouth a thin line while her eyes sparkled with mirth. “They ain’t pretty. In fact, there was this one where—”
“I know, Ma, you’ve told me that one before.”
The rocking chair creaked as she turned to face me. “You sure? The one with the guy that—”
“Yep, that’s the one.”
It was one of her favorite stories to tell and I knew it by heart. It began with Mom stationed behind the pharmacy counter, the cold florescent lights above her blinking and buzzing. Because she was a mere five-two (And a quarter, Megan, she would say. I need every bit of an inch I can get) the only thing her customers could see of her was the top of her fiery poof of hair peeking above the computer. A corded phone was clamped between her ear and left shoulder as she talked to customers, doctors, insurance companies, and your third cousin twice removed. Her fingers clattered over the keyboard to keep up with the hundreds of prescriptions yet to be filled that day, each awaiting her approval.
The man was in line by then. He was middle-aged, nearing his late forties, and wearing a worn bomber jacket over a black t-shirt and olive cargo pants frayed at the heel. His brown hair caught the light, gleaming greasily where it protruded from beneath his Bass Pro Shop cap and fading into a dull grey it met his perpetual five o’clock shadow. He stood in line behind an old woman whose granddaughter chattered to herself in the basket of her blue and grey Wal-Mart cart. His foot tapped against the linoleum tile and he looked at the ceiling, waiting. He stepped forward before the old woman’s mouth had formed the you of her Thank you and the woman gave him a sideways glance, mouth set in a sneer as he leaned one-armed against the counter. He drummed his fingers against it and met her gaze. She lifted her nose and stomped away.
He cleared his throat.
“A moment, please,” the technician said. She was at the racks, back to him. After replacing the prescription bag to its proper location, she turned to face him, tucking wayward blonde curls behind her ear. Her jaw clenched when an acrid scent wafted toward her. “Name and date of birth?”
He wiped his nose on the tattered sleeve of his jacket. “Yeah, I’d like to speak to a pharmacist.”
“Oh,” she said, her fingers poised over the register’s keyboard. She placed them on the counter. “Do you have some questions about new prescriptions you’re picking up tod—”
“Something like that.”
She stared at him, the corners of her lips downturned. “Right . . . well, if you’ll just step over there.” She pointed at the consultation counter. “A pharmacist will be with you shortly.” When he didn’t move she called out, “Counsel!” before she flashed the man a polite smile and turned to help the next customer.
Even though my mother had long been off the phone, I knew that even she must have taken one look at this man and prayed that Gary, the other pharmacist on shift, would take over. She looked over at Gary and repressed a sigh. He was already, conveniently, busying himself by checking inventory. The pill bottles cackled at her as he handled them. Great, she thought. She let the sigh pass through her lips as she stepped away from her computer and corded-phone to sacrifice herself with a plastered-on smile. Her eyes sought out the hook on the wall and her brows furrowed when she noticed that there was no prescription bag hanging for her to counsel. The man stood there, watching her silently, so she continued forward. The strawberry-blonde hairs on her arms stood on end as his aroma radiated closer and closer and she tried not to breathe.
“How can I help you?” she asked. Her eyes drifted down his form and froze when she noticed his hand rustling in his pocket before stilling as it gripped something she couldn’t see. Her smile did not falter as her eyes darted back to his face when he began to speak.
“Yeah, I have a, uh, bit of a personal question to ask.” His breath smelled like Busch Light.
“Does this look normal to you?” He pulled his hand from his pocket and she could see the blue and red corners of a Ziploc bag protruding from between his fingers before he slapped it on the counter.
She must have stared at it, unbelieving. At least that is what I would have done if someone placed a Ziploc bag full of shit in front of me. Why it didn’t occur to my mother to kick the bastard out for bringing a bloated-from-built-up-gasses bag of shit into a public space, I’ll never know. But, then again, it was Wal-Mart.
She settled back in her chair with a shrug and a smile. “Your loss,” she said.
One by one my father, brother and I bend and clutch dirt in our hands. I had expected it to crumble under my touch but its softness surprises me. Perhaps the chill hasn’t reached that far down yet. I pull my hands to my chest and wait behind them, my eyes trailing over their trembling shoulders. I do not see the dirt leave their hands.
Dad looks back, his smile fragile. It is my turn.
They step aside and I draw closer to the edge. As I stand there, pale arm outstretched over the grave, only one thought crosses my mind: why did I not let her tell it to me again?
The dirt slips between my fingers and lands without a sound.
Megan Rachuy is a graduate student based in Iowa. She is a fiction editor for Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment and will be attending the University of Stirling’s masters program The Gothic Imagination fall 2018. Afterwards, she plans to return to Iowa to seek a MFA in creative writing. “Tell Me Again” is her first published work.