by Kathy Contant
Maybe the world ends with a thunderous tattoo beat against my front door by a jaded policeman late at night. Or maybe the world doesn’t end. The sun will still rise tomorrow. The birds will trill their early morning greetings. The neighbors will walk their children to the bus stop at the end of the cul-de-sac before leaving for work or the gym or the grocery store or wherever it is they go. Maybe the world doesn’t end, but I do. And Tom, the one who will open the door. Who will wake me to come downstairs. Who will catch me in his arms when my legs can no longer support me and the weight of my grief. He ends, too.
There are two policemen. I suppose they have to work in pairs for safety. The older one, with his straggled salt-and-pepper hair and belly just beginning to bulge over his belt, he is the one who tells us that Nate had been found dead in his dorm room. He is very factual. He refuses to stray from the script. The other one, younger—his backside hugs the door as if he were afraid my cries would bring down the walls like Jericho. He shouldn’t be afraid. God isn’t listening.
Both of them keep glancing at me, the way that the dean of students will glance at me, and the grief counselor, and even Tom. I don’t understand that it is fear. Fear that I will cry myself sick or hurt myself or worse. They don’t understand that everything is meaningless, and life is very long.
Nate was a surprise baby. We had long since given up the dream of having a child. Thousands of dollars spent on doctors and specialists. Hundreds of dollars spent on all sorts of different strips to pee on. Hours spent fighting traffic on the I-77 in Charlotte trying to get specimen collection cups camouflaged in brown paper bags to the clinic before whatever timer they used expired. Having them tell us every month to call them to schedule a pregnancy test and never doing it because the blood on the toilet paper was answer enough. We gave up and decided to adopt a cat. We named him Casserole, because who doesn’t like casseroles? And just like a cliché, a few months later we discovered I was pregnant when I went to the doctor because I thought I had the flu. He was due on New Year’s Eve, and we’d joked that maybe we could win something if he were the first baby born in the new year, as if a baby weren’t enough of a prize. Nate had other ideas. He came into the world on his own terms, three weeks early and ten minutes before the doctor arrived, who complained that the nurse told her my cervix was only five centimeters and posterior.
Nate left the world on his own terms, 18 years and 105 days later.
Human kind cannot bear too much reality. Tom calls his mother, and I sit outside, sucking on the end of a Marlboro Light. It tastes like ashes, but I chase it down with a bottle of Amstel Light from a six-pack I bought on clearance that has sat in the crisper refrigerator drawer ever since. I light another cigarette. I hear Tom’s voice through the screen door, and I wonder who I’m supposed to call. My mom died when I was thirteen, my dad when I was thirty.
Tom slides the screen door open and kicks at the cat to keep him from running out. I know how you feel, Casserole. I don’t want to be inside either. Tom shuts the door.
“I brought you another beer.” He hands it to me and then stands beside me. We stare out into the yard and watch the shadow of our cat pacing back and forth against the back fence. It’s quiet, and even the neighbors two doors down who shout at each other about things I can never clearly overhear have long been in bed.
“Don’t let me forget the dandruff shampoo,” I say. “At least I can take the whole bottle and not try to shove it into one of those tiny airport bottles.”
Tom lays his hand on my shoulder.
“And don’t forget the Pepcid.”
“Do you want me to make a list?” he asks.
“Sure, that’s probably a good idea.”
When my dad died, I forgot to pack any shirts for Tom, and he’d sweated through a cheap Wal-Mart dress shirt as we braved the heat at Fort Jackson National Cemetery.
Tom turns to head into the house, and I remember who I need to call. My eyes burn and my chest tightens.
Tom turns back to me.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“Lila. We have to tell Lila.”
Lila was Nate’s high school girlfriend. They decided to end their relationship instead of trying to keep it going long-distance: a surprisingly mature decision, especially for Nate, who regularly wore a unicorn onesie to school when he didn’t feel like getting dressed.
They were still best friends and texted each other every day.
“Crap,” says Tom.
It’s 8 a.m., and Tom dials the number the policeman gave him for the dean of students. I am packing the purple suitcase, the one we got when the three of us went to Disney World. It still has the yellow tag for the Magical Express wrapped around the handle. Nate had been thirteen and too cool to walk too closely to us as we wound our way through the parks. Not too cool to grab my hand, though, when the car dropped in the Tower of Terror and I screamed. I find three MagicBands in the side pocket of the suitcase. I turn the blue one over and see his name engraved on the back. I tighten my fingers around it before putting it back into the side pocket. I leave the other two on the bed.
Underwear. How many pairs of underwear should I pack? It’s a fourteen-hour drive from Charlotte to Burlington, Vermont, so that’s two days there and two days back. Or maybe it’s one day there if we don’t stop. I don’t know how long we have to stay. This underwear math is too hard. I pack six pairs for each of us and move on to socks. I open the sock drawer in the dresser and start tossing pairs of socks into the suitcase. Black pairs, white pairs, the blue ones with the turtles, the Wonder Woman ones Nate gave me for my birthday last year. Soon the drawer is empty, and I still don’t know if I’ve packed enough socks. It’s cold in Vermont, and I don’t want our feet to get cold, so I grab the laundry basket to start a load. Tom stands up from his desk chair, takes the basket from me and puts it on the floor. He pulls me tight against his chest and I soak his shirt with tears and snot while he kisses the top of my head. I wonder how I can be so full of grief and yet still feel so empty. I wonder if Tom cries when I’m out of the room, or if he’s been crying all this time and I just haven’t noticed.
I mash my grief into a tiny ball. We have to stop at Lila’s house on the way. I can’t carry my grief and hers, so I keep mashing and mashing until it’s small enough that I can hide it away.
Tom loads the suitcase into the car, after removing most of the socks and repacking it according to the list he made the night before. He opens the passenger-side door for me, and I slide into the seat. He shuts it softly, then walks around the car to the driver’s side. He gets in and starts the car.
“Should we call her first, to make sure she’s home?” he asks.
“No, it’s 9 a.m. on the first day of spring break. She’s home.”
We buckle up, and he backs out of the driveway. I have to direct him to her house, even though we’ve both been there countless times, picking her up or dropping her off. Not as much once Nate got his driver’s license.
Spring comes early in the South, and the dogwood trees are in full bloom. The white blossoms limned with blush arch across Lila’s driveway like an arbor. Tom parks the car, and we just sit.
Nate and Lila had spent a lot of time together the summer before he left for college. Not being a teenage boy herself, Lila was astounded by how much crap he had stowed away in his room when she agreed to help him get ready for college. Up and down the stairs they trudged with bag after bag of trash and outgrown clothes. Dishes I had long thought gone reappeared in the sink.
“How did you keep this all in your room?” she asked. “And why do you have so many pairs of socks?”
He chuckled, his laugh rumbling from deep within his chest.
“It’s not funny. You’re like a hoarder. You can’t do that,” she said.
He laughed again. “You can’t tell me how to live my life.”
She may have tossed a shoe at him. All I’d heard was a thump and more laughter. Later I took them for some pho from the Vietnamese place down the street before they left to go hang out with friends. I hadn’t seen her since. She’d been busy with her senior year in high school, and Nate was gone, so I didn’t think it was strange.
Tom knocks on the door, and I flinch. I hear her dog barking. We wait. The barking subsides, and Tom knocks again. More barking, but I can barely hear a shushing from behind the door. When she opens the door, I can see that we have woken her up. She’s wearing rainbow pajamas and oversized Killer Rabbit slippers.
“Oh hey, how are you guys?” She smiles.
“Lila, are your parents home?”
“No, why? What’s going on?”
I see her sleep-ruffled hair, and I remember the policeman with his rules and his facts and his script.
“Lila, can we come in?”
Her smile disappears and her brows furrow. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“Lila, the police came by last night,” Tom says. “Nate was found dead in his dorm room.”
I watch her face. It’s an eternity of time for my words to penetrate, for her to understand. Her expression is frozen. And suddenly crumples.
“I don’t understand,” she cries. “We had been texting and he was going to get a pizza and maybe take a nap. I thought he just fell asleep.” I guide her inside, and Tom shuts the door. The dog butts his nose against Lila’s leg and whines.
I have no answer, not for the question she’s really asking. I hold her tightly and stroke her hair. The wispy blonde strands flow like silk between my fingers. Her shoulders shake as she sobs, and I keep stroking her hair. Tom buries his hand in the dog’s fur as he calls Lila’s mom, and we wait in the shadowed room until she arrives.
The funeral home calls as we merge onto I-77 North. The voice echoes through the Bluetooth system in the car. The funeral director tells us how much it will cost to prepare the body for shipment, but we’ll have to call the airline to find out how much it will cost to fly him home. He tells us how much the cremation costs are, but we can get a good deal through the Cremation Society of Vermont. Tom tells him that we’ll be in town tomorrow, and we make an appointment for 11 a.m. When the call disconnects, we listen to rock music on the iPod. There’s not much traffic on the road for once, and we make good time through northern North Carolina and into Virginia. I stare out the window and watch the scenery flash by.
“Someone once told me that they make really good sandwiches at Sheetz,” I say.
“Isn’t that a gas station?”
“Yeah, but Wawa is a gas station too, and people are all crazy about their sandwiches.”
“Huh. Maybe we’ll check it out.”
The hours blur by, broken up only when we stop for breaks or gas or food. We merge onto I-81, and I announce in unison with the voice of the GPS when we enter West Virginia, and Maryland, and Pennsylvania. It starts to get dark before we merge onto the I-78 toward Allentown. I think Billy Joel had a song about it, but I don’t care enough to try to remember. We leave Pennsylvania for New Jersey. Our conversations are limited to road signs and state borders. I offer to drive, but I know Tom will insist on driving the entire trip. He focuses so hard on the road that it leaves him no room to think. I focus on the road signs and the arrow on the GPS map. I think the doctors call it shock. I can only think about where we are. If I start thinking about where we’re going, then I’ll start thinking about why we’re going, and then I’ll be in a valley so hollow that there’s no way out.
It’s almost midnight, and Tom begins to play Pac-Man with the lane dividers. We had planned on driving straight though, but the scant hour or two of sleep we’d caught the night before isn’t enough. I find a cheap hotel nearby, and Tom tries to take the exit to Newburgh, New York. It’s a toll road, and you have to pay to exit. I tell Tom that maybe they take cards.
They don’t take cards. It’s cash only. The lady in the tollbooth looks bored when she tells us it’s $1.40. Tom starts slapping his pants pockets while I dig through the center console. The lady in the tollbooth sneers.
“Are you trying to tell me you don’t even have a dollar?”
I want to tell her that we don’t normally carry cash, and that nobody carries cash anymore really. Yesterday morning I woke up and it was a normal Wednesday and the department brought us Viva Chicken for lunch and my son was alive. Now he’s dead and I’m sorry I didn’t think to stop at the ATM to get cash for the toll road I didn’t know we’d be on. I look at her face and the lines around her mouth that pull down at the corners, and I don’t think she would care about any of it. Luckily, Tom finds a crumpled-up dollar bill hiding in the corner of his pants pocket.
“I’ll cover the rest,” she says and waves us through.
The night clerk at the hotel is alarmingly cheery. She hands us our keycards and gives us directions to the room. We drive around the back and Tom lugs the suitcase up the stairs. The stairwell stinks of stale cigarettes, but the room is clean and odor-free. We grab what we need from the suitcase, perform our ablutions, and collapse into the bed. It’s a king-sized bed, and the space between us is wider than normal. Maybe too wide.
It’s still dark when we leave, and the lady who checked us in checks us out. Tom drives to an ATM on our way back to the interstate, just in case. It’s just over four hours to Burlington, so we’ll just have enough time to make it to our appointment. When I see the sign that reads “Welcome to Vermont,” I remember that I just requested the first week of May off from work so I could drive to Vermont and help Nate move out from his dorm. He was going to live in a different dorm his sophomore year. I shut my eyes, but the tears still fall.
We miss the funeral home on the first pass. It was one more Georgian-style house on a street lined with them. Tom makes a U-turn, and we park in the back parking lot. We walk to the front entrance and ring the bell. A somber man in a three-piece suit ushers us in. He introduces himself, but I only remember that he’s the funeral director. We follow him through what must have been a parlor when the house was originally built, past a grand staircase with polished wooden handrails. He sits us at an enormous black table. Flower arrangements are evenly spread across the top, with boxes of Kleenex within easy reach of every chair. He offers his condolences and a hot beverage and starts his sales pitch. I see a box neatly lined with a variety of tea bags. Chamomile, to soothe the more distressed patrons. Darjeeling, oolong, lemon zinger, which seems out of place, but I’ve never tried it. Green tea for the health-conscious, and Earl Grey, which is actually a flavored tea and not a style as I’d thought for the last twenty years.
The absence of the funeral director’s voice pulls my attention from the tea.
“I can take you to see him whenever you’re ready,” he says. We stand and head out of the room to another set of stairs that lead down to the basement. My hand touches the bannister and I freeze.
“I can’t,” I say.
Tom reaches for my hand and squeezes it. “I’ll be right back. You can come when you’re ready.” He follows the funeral director down the stairs. Once they are out of sight, I go back to the room with the table and the tea and sit on a chair.
A mother should be brave. There are all those stories about mothers who develop superhuman strength in order to save their children pinned under cars or cabinets or all the other objects that children end up under. Or they have some special intuition that allows them to prevent accidents or other danger. Nate and I went to the National Whitewater Center once and lined up for the Hawk Jump. We climbed up ten stories of steps, laden with safety harnesses and hooks. He went before me, yelling “Ooh rah!” and stepping off the edge of the -hundred-foot-high platform without hesitation. I watched him fall and heard him laugh as the power fan kicked on and slowly lowered him to the ground. I was next, and even though I could just barely hear his voice cheering me on, I froze. The guide counted down once, twice, three times. He had me back up slowly so he could unclip me from the line, and I walked down the ten stories of steps. Nate met me at the bottom and patted my shoulder.
“Sometimes it’s more brave to know your limits,” he said.
I grab a handful of Kleenex and press it against my face. I stand up, wad the tissue into my left hand, and walk down the stairs.
He looks just like he did when he was home on winter break, swaddled in a blanket on the couch after staying up all night playing video games. Except he is on a slab in the basement of this funeral home. He will not awaken with a grumble because Casserole jumped onto his chest and huffed fish-tinged breaths into his face. I press my lips against his forehead, and his skin is so cold it burns. I brush the dark fringe of his bangs off his face. I watch his chest, waiting for a breath that will never come. Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe this will be one of those urban legends where they think he’s dead and it turns out that his metabolic system just slowed itself down to imperceptible levels. My lips part with the start of a prayer, but the chill lingers and I stop. He is not here.
I don’t look to see if there are marks on his neck. I never ask to see the police report. I turn away from him for the last time and walk to the display of urns on the back wall.
My dad had known he was dying, so I hadn’t had to do anything at the funeral home but sign papers. He’d prepaid for the cremation, and he’d chosen a simple jade box that sat beneath a red, white and blue flag before the military honor guard had folded it and presented it to me. I didn’t realize until now how many different urns he must have looked at, or maybe he just picked one of the first he saw. What I thought was the back wall is a labyrinth of walls filled with shelves filled with urns. Wooden boxes, metal boxes, elaborately carved boxes, simple boxes, vase-like urns with matching mini-urns. Flowers and birds and butterflies and crosses and maudlin engravings. I barely look at each one, and each one is wrong. I hear Tom call my name. He stands in front of a shelf I already passed three times.
“What do you think about this one?” He points to the middle of the third shelf. I lean in to look closer. The funeral director hovers behind us.
“That one is really meant for a young person,” he says. “It’s called gunmetal.” Tom nods. My fingers flit along the side of the urn. The deep gray stone seems to glow under the fluorescent lighting.
“Nate is young,” I whisper.
The funeral director starts talking about the urn, but all I hear is buzzing. I stare at the wall, at the shelf, at the urn. I don’t know how I missed it. “How did you find it?”
“I saw you looking at the maroon one with the butterflies, and I just found myself in front of this one. Maybe Nate knew we needed help choosing.”
I lay my head against Tom’s shoulder. “We’ll take this one.” The funeral director promises everything will be ready tomorrow afternoon.
Two hours later, we pull into a tiny parking lot behind a yellow building trimmed with white. It sits at the middle of a steep hill, surrounded by other brightly cheerful buildings. The sunlight shines brighter here, and I blink my eyes until they adjust. Lake Champlain is in the distance, and its silvery surface sparkles. Everywhere I turn is another scene of panoramic perfection. This town is beautiful, and I hate it.
The dean of students meets us outside. He is a stereotypical academic in glasses and a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. He shakes our hands and offers his condolences. I wonder what I’m supposed to do with all the condolences. Do I collect them in a box until someone else needs them? I don’t want to keep thanking people for them. It just adds to the weight of it all. But nothing matters more than appearance, so I thank him, and we follow him into the happy yellow building so he can break our hearts.
The dean offers to have his staff pack up Nate’s room.
“You are more than welcome to do it, of course,” he says, meaning the opposite. “We’ll just have to figure out how to manage the situation without further traumatizing his roommates and the others in the dorm.”
Tom leaves the decision to me. I imagine what it would have been like in two months if I could have picked Nate up from his dorm. Would he have shown me the room I’d only seen in pictures? Would he introduce me to his roommates or just try to rush us out as quickly as possible? I’d probably have to help him finish packing, like Lila did last fall.
“When would we be able to pick his stuff up, if your staff did it?”
He checks his phone. “How about tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m.?”
The college reserves two nights at a hotel for us. It’s a spacious room with a view of the lake, and within walking distance of Church Street Market. I close the curtains. Tom looks at his phone.
“Hey, there’s a Rí Rá here.” He shows me the map.
“Really? So, we drove all the way from Charlotte, where we have a Rí Rá in Uptown, to eat at Rí Rá in Burlington, Vermont?”
“We don’t have to go there. We can just check out Church Street Market and stop in wherever you want. There’s a Ben and Jerry’s here, too. We can’t be in Vermont and not go to Ben and Jerry’s.” He keeps looking at the tiny map on his screen, his middle finger scrolling through the options.
“We’ll go to Rí Rá. Fish and chips sounds good.”
The desk clerk gives us directions to Church Street. It takes only minutes to cross the street and enter the market. The storefronts have all been refurbished, and the streets are paved with ruddy bricks. No cars are allowed, and pedestrians wander in and out of shops and restaurants, singly and in groups. Street musicians busk at the busier sections, and group of students holding signs stands at one corner. They are silent, and I wonder what they are protesting. From the corner of my eye, I glimpse a familiar boy walking by. I stop and gasp.
“I know, Susie—he looks like Nate.”
We look around at all the people walking past us. The crowd is full of college students, and all the boys seem to share the same wardrobe. Tom is right, but he’s wrong, too. The boy with the galaxy cat T-shirt, refusing to wear a coat even though it’s forty degrees. The boy wearing the boat-sized Converse, whose mother probably threw her hands up in frustration like I did because he outgrew his shoes every few weeks in high school. The boy hunched under his hoodie, his backpack hanging from one shoulder. They all look like Nate.
After dinner, we walk down to the lakeshore. There are still random piles of dirty snow surrounding various trees that line the park. It’s night now, and the moon is tumid with its fullness.
We pull into the parking lot behind the yellow building promptly at 2 p.m. The dean again offers his condolences and shakes our hands and talks about the memorial service they are planning.
“It’s a tricky time, though, with the students preparing for reading week and finals. We don’t want to disrupt them too much.”
“And of course, we’d like to bring you back for it, if that’s okay.”
It’s not okay, but maybe it will be. His staff helps us load Nate’s belongings into the car. Two large suitcases and five boxes. It seems a paltry amount and not nearly enough for a boy who once had so much that his girlfriend chided him for it.
The dean waves as we leave, looking as if he didn’t get what he needed from us. We didn’t get what we needed from him, so that makes us even.
The funeral director calls to let us know that Nate is ready. We drive to the funeral home and miss the entrance again. After we park, we enter through the front door and are greeted by the director. He leads us into the room with the enormous table, and I see the urn sitting on the table. He waits expectantly until Tom moves to the table and picks up the urn.
“You should carry him.” Tom hands me the urn.
I am surprised at how heavy it is. I hug it close.
In the hotel room, I place the urn on the nightstand next to my side of the bed. Tom flips through the channels on the television, finally settling on a documentary about Jupiter. I decide to take a shower. It’s a huge, stone-tiled shower with a rainfall showerhead. I turn the water hotter until it almost scalds my skin. I watch my skin redden as the water washes the grime from the lack of sleep and the long car rides of the past two days.
When Nate was in fifth grade, he had to make a model of a planet in the solar system. He chose Jupiter. We made the dough ourselves, and he added cinnamon so it smelled good. We forgot to get gloves, so our hands were stained red for days.
I stare at my hands now, and the tiny ball of grief I worked so hard to keep mashed down expands larger and larger until it bursts from my mouth with a strident, guttural wail.
Tom finds me in the shower on my knees, my head in my hands. He shuts off the water and grabs a large white bath towel from a shelf. He enters the shower and kneels down, wrapping me in the towel. We stay like that, with his arms tight around me, until I fall asleep. Somehow, Tom gets me dressed and into bed, because when I wake up, it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep anymore. We fell asleep with the television on. The light from the screen flickers, and I watch shadows dance across the ceiling. The sheets on the other side of the bed rustle.
“You up, Susie?”
I jump out of bed and start tossing things into the suitcase. We dress and I start zipping up the suitcase. Tom rounds the room, checking under the bed and in the closet to make sure we don’t forget anything. He turns off the TV and grabs the suitcase. I grab the urn from the nightstand and cradle it in my arms and follow him out of the room.
No one else is awake, and the harsh overhead lights and garish carpet belie the quiet stillness of the hotel. We wait several minutes at the front desk before a sleepy-eyed night clerk appears to check us out.
“We hope you had a good stay here,” she says, smiling.
“Yes, thank you.” Tom hands her the keycards.
“Have a safe trip.” She waves and hurries back to the small office behind the desk.
I wait in the lobby as Tom goes to get the car. The night is cloudless, and I finally see the stars, twinkling even though they have been long dead, until they fade in the headlights of the car. I open the passenger-side back door and place the urn in the seat. Tom turns around and leans back to help me. I pull the seatbelt strap snug against the gunmetal gray urn. I shut the door, then slide into the passenger seat. Tom glances up into the rearview mirror.
“Well, Nate, are you ready to go?”
I hold Tom’s hand as he pulls the car out of the hotel parking lot, and we go home.
Kathy Contant is a first-year MFA fiction candidate at UNC Greensboro. She graduated from UNC Charlotte with a BA in English and a minor in linguistics. She lives in Greensboro, NC
with her husband and two cats who hate each other.