I turn off the television and sit, watching
the luminous spot in the center of the set grow smaller. Then, still holding
a can of Diet Pepsi, I lean over, pressing my nose to the window screen,
and watch the shadowed people of the city walk through the gray and hazy
summer streets. The heavy air flickers. A thin rain is falling through it.
I blink, and behind my darkened lids test patterns jump.
Poor reception. Getting static.
My husband buzzes his shaver in the bathroom.
I'm getting impatient. "Hurry, Michael," I yell. "It's beginning to rain!"
We're taking a walk this afternoon because our air conditioner is on the
blink and our apartment is particularly oppressive.
"Ready?" Michael calls, coming into the living
room with a blue towel tossed across his shoulder.
"Ready," I reply.
He grabs a shirt hanging on the knob of the
door and I grab my pocketbook, and we both say goodbye to the cat. Then
we start down the damp, echoing (but very clean) marble steps and go out
into the street.
New York streets smell in summer. Odors packing
together like foam rubber, stuffing up the front of your nose and expanding.
Both Michael and I are breathing through our mouths.
First we hold hands for about a block, but
soon that feels clammy; we're sticking to each other. Then we drop our arms
to our sides where they barely move at all, as if encased and protected
from their own thrust by the padding of the heavy air.
"Michael," I call to him, "let's begin to
play." He can hardly hear me, a red truck passing makes so much noise.
"What shall we play today?" he asks.
"How about cowboys?" That's my favorite game,
but sometimes he only wants to play his own game.
He slaps his pants and finds his gun and says,
"O.K.," and then, "I'm Roy Rogers."
"He's dead," I say grazing him with my hip
as I sidestep to avoid a pile of dog shit near the corner.
"Be someone alive!"
"I'm Roy Rogers!" he repeats emphatically.
Michael is several years older than I am, obviously, and he likes to show
off things I couldn't possibly know. He is a great fan of forgotten masters
of the old B-flicks, like William Witney, a director of the old Roy Rogers'
Our fight is beginning earlier today.
I give in. "O.K. I'm Clint Eastwood!"
"You're Dale Evans," he says, pulling his
gun out of his pants and getting a draw on me, right in front of several
NYU students and two old Polish men, sitting on their stoop in sky-blue
peekaboo nylon shirts. "You're a cowgirl!"
"No fair!" I cry. "I need to be a cowboy too!"
Despite the gray air and drizzle, there are
a lot of people out on the street and I have to keep angling my body so
that they don't bump into me.
"You're a cowgirl," Michael insists. "You
have to be!"
"I'm gender neutral," I say, wishing I had
not left my gun at home, tucked beneath the mauve cushions of our retro
modern sofa. Sometimes I tuck it into my panties beneath my long sleek skirt
before we go out on walks. And I'd pull it out right now and click its yellow
plastic handle and shoot Michael dead. He can be so know-it-all sometimes,
childishly wanting his own way. He expects me to be content with our dolls,
those ancient steroidal GI Joes that stand in the bookcase, twenty-two of
them, and I never want to play with them.
"I'll only play if I can be a cowboy too."
"O.K. Then we won't play today." A slow yawn
opens his face. He is covering up a smile. Emotional blackmail! What a prick
he is, what a hard-on, what a spoiled brat. "We just won't play today if
you won't play right," he says.
"O.K.," I say, stretching, also yawning. But
it's no good, because he knows I really do want to play. "I don't care if
I play or not. It's not fair that I always have to keep up with you on your
terms. It's not fair at all. I never get to go anywhere real with you. We're
always riding the range and protecting the camp, and yodeling, and roping
the horses, and herding the cows, and playing the guitar, and shooting down
Native Americans, and rounding up rustlers, and when we get home all I ever
get to do is nurse those lousy dolls!"
"Action figures." He shrugs. We're standing,
waiting for the light to change, watching the M1 buses pulling up at the
corner and letting off all the passengers.
Pressure gathers in my stomach. "Let me be
a cowboy," I cry. "Let me have some gender-bending fun. Oh, Michael, think
of me as an actual cowboy."
He stands for a long time, scuffing his foot
on the curb, looking intently at the traffic light.
"Oh, please, think of me as an actual cowboy
too." Big tears gather in my eyes. "Will you, will you?"
My relief is enormous. Two passers-by stop
and look at me as the tears rush down my cheeks. Sometimes
Michael can be so nice! I rub my fist into the corner of my eye.
"Bang!" I turn around fast. "Bang!
Bang!" Michael says. "You're dead!"
Michael has gotten the draw on me. He has
penetrated me. He has attacked me right in the heart. I stop, almost in
the middle of the street. A taxi almost gets me too, screeching its brakes,
the driver yelling at me. Michael pulls me to the curb.
"Well, I got you already," he says. "Game's
over. Let's go home."
"You only wounded me," I say in a faltering
voice. "It's just a superficial shoulder-wound." I am staggering, my hand
pressed to my heart.
"Nah," he says, spitting on the sidewalk.
"I really got you. You're dead! Let's go home."
"Wounded!" I shout.
"Dead," he repeats.
And I begin crying and crying, a scratching
sound that hurts my stomach and grates up through my chest and out my mouth.
There are no gritty tears this time, but my eyes sting horribly and inside
my head is the kind of a high, thin sound a television makes when it first
goes on. And I'm very dizzy.
"Wounded, please, wounded . . . ."
Michael's afraid that I'm making a scene,
but I don't think anyone is really paying any attention to me.
"You only wounded me," I whimper.
"Shhhh. Turn down the volume," he hisses.
"Please, please. Oh, please, please, pretty
please with sugar on it!"
He's embarrassed. "I'll buy you a Good Humor,"
he says, stopping before a uniformed man with a cart, who barely glances
up at my painfully contorted body. "O.K.?"
"Can it be over already? Oh, please say I'm
only wounded, Michael."
"You know you're really dead," he answers,
studying the chart of flavors on the cart's side, "but I'll say you're only
wounded if you'll shut up."
"You're so fucking mean!" I shout. And for
a moment everyone on the sidewalk--businessmen, beggars, housewives, druggies,
hip-hoppers, shopkeepers, students,fashion models, dogs and alley cats--all
look at Michael.
He pretends not to notice, but I can tell
he's uncomfortable. He turns to me and reaches for my shoulder. I back away.
"Are you really wounded?" he asks. "Shall
I ride you to a doctor?"
He tries to examine my shoulder and lower,
but when his fingers are on me I get dizzy with fright. For one second he
and the Good Humor man, and all the people standing watching, dissolve into
a series of frenetic horizontal lines, and I hear static in my head, crackling
and popping right in my ears. Then I push him back. I fight my way through
the damp air, through the people, and run back down the street. Through
traffic, across intersections. I reach our building and open the door downstairs.
Up the steps and through the high-ceilinged halls, and scrambling for the
keys, I get into the apartment where--rushing to the window--I can see Michael
running after me.
I know he'll be at the door any minute. Shall
I bar it? With what? A chair would slip too easily. I could hurl myself
against the door, but it would never work.
It runs through my mind that maybe I should
pretend to be dead, so that when he crosses the threshold he'll see me lying
there and leave me alone. Or maybe he'll take care of me, cradling me against
him, making soft cooing sounds to me.
I do crawl around on my hands and knees for
a second, searching for a suitable place to die; but then, just as I hear
his footsteps coming quick and stark against the polished marble, I leap
from my position and run to the couch, where I snatch my red plastic gun
with its yellow trigger from its hiding place.
He opens the door.
I shoot him.
He falls to the ground, eyes rising, and red,
shiny blood forms shapely plastic pools on the floor. Then
it spreads thin. He doesn't even cry; he just gazes at me, eyelids blinking,
his hair hanging over his forehead.
I fall against his chest, on top of him, so
that the blood seeps through my dress and over my body, too.
Then I roll over, and we're lying next to
each other. I grab at his hand.
We hug, clutching each other.
"Will we ever have children?" I ask.
"Never," he says. And dies.
of the Dead
the tinted window, the Mexican hillsides were green. The rainy season
had just ended. Cactuses were in bloom, all kinds, long cactuses and squat
ones, and rangy cactuses with cottony limbs. Goats and donkeys munched
grass by the road. In the front of the bus, a pretty long-haired bus attendant
in a tight red miniskirt and jacket passed out soft drinks and sandwiches.
Charlotte knew that if her father were alive at this moment he'd be flirting
with that bus attendant. But her father had died three years ago of a
heart attack on a bus out of Mexico City on his way to San Miguel. And
now Charlotte was riding one of those same roomy, luxury buses, with miniature
TV sets playing movies overhead, mimicking an airline. Charlotte was traveling
to San Miguel to celebrate the Days of the Dead. Inside her purse, she
carried a handful of ashes--her father's ashes. She was tracking her father's
path, three years too late.
Jordan, her husband, slouched in the seat
next to Charlotte, didn't seem to notice the sexy young bus attendant
at all. His honorable blue-eyed gaze was fixed on Charlotte--as it should
be, but often wasn't after eleven years.
"How're you doing?" Jordan looped a thick
arm around Charlotte's neck, and with his other hand, accepted a sandwich
from the bus attendant. He peeled the top slice of bread back to sniff.
"I'm fine." Charlotte stared out the window.
At some point in his journey--was it here?--Charlotte's
mother said that her father had gasped, dropped the book he was reading,
and toppled out of his seat.
Charlotte's father had always joked about
death. "Throw my body in the garbage when I die." He was proud of shunning
"the hollow religious rituals," if not the culture, of his forebears.
A phony bravado, Charlotte thought. Like most people, could he imagine
dying? And when he had died in Mexico, unexpectedly, could even he have
imagined the international complications, the problem of shipping his
body back? No hometown rabbi would preside over services for her father
when her mother returned with the ashes. Cremation was against Jewish
The bus stopped to re-fuel. Charlotte raked
short curls out of her eyes. A street peddler draped in Day of the Dead
baubles ran alongside, the driver handed out money, then hooked a dangling
skeleton next to a Virgin of Guadelupe on a large rear-view mirror that
Tomorrow, on the Day of the Dead, Charlotte
would bury her father's ashes in San Miguel, the town that he loved. If
indeed these were his ashes. She'd heard stories about these cremations,
how the bones of all different people get mixed up and the ashes you end
up with could be anyone's--not necessarily her father's. Though in that
case maybe a mix-up would appeal to him, his sense of irony, fervent internationalist
that he was, believer in mixing up boundaries. Death was the most clearly
defined boundary she knew. Charlotte would love to mix Death up.
But she wasn't going to mention the ashes
to Jordan again. She and Jordan had argued about the ashes last night.
Jordan was sympathetic to Charlotte's intentions, he'd said, but not to
her deed. Charlotte had lifted the ashes from her mother's house. Only
a handful. They wouldn't be missed. Her mother kept the ashes in an urn
shaped like a loving cup on a closet shelf, shoved behind shoeboxes filled
with important papers. The urn was plastic, gold and gray, really tacky.
Even in dealing with death, her mother was cheap. Charlotte's father had
been the opposite, naturally expansive. So was Jordan, Charlotte thought--when
he didn't stop and think.
Maybe Jordan was right, not about her theft
but his crack that it was fitting for her father to be encased in plastics.
Her father was stuck in plastics for most of his life. After inventing
a fume-free styrofoam molding and cutting machine, he had landed a job
in North Carolina at a Christmas novelties plant owned by another New
York Jew who read about his invention in an industrial magazine. Carl
Marks was the name of his employer--a name that made Charlotte's family
smile because her father occasionally professed Communist sympathies.
Charlotte remembered watching him scratch his prickly moustache. "How
did it happen? I work for Das Kapital-ist now."
Jordan nudged Charlotte to pay attention
"'On the Day of the Dead, the departed can
return,'" Jordan read to Charlotte from his underlined tourist guide.
Jordan was treating this whole trip as a tourist excursion.
"Good." Charlotte cut him off because today
she wasn't in the mood for a reasonable discussion.
Today, her whole relationship with Jordan
seemed too reasonable.
I want my father back.
Charlotte still recalled her disbelief when
her mother had phoned, speaking in a high, breathy voice from the American
Embassy, telling Charlotte that Mexican officials needed to be bribed
to release the body. "Charlotte, our Daddy is dead. Our Daddy is gone--"
As if he were her father too.
"Face it," Charlotte told Jordan outright
last night in a moment of wry confession about her topsy-turvy little
girl's passion. "You're no substitute for my father."
"Face it." Jordan was equally wry, with
a rare trace of bitterness. "Even your real father is no substitute for
your father ."
"You're the one who understands me better
than anyone else, better than your mother," her father used to tell her
during their late-night conversations in the kitchen after everyone else
was asleep, conversations that always started out about Charlotte's ideas,
Charlotte's problems, Charlotte's needs, and ended up about him--conversations,
Jordan joked, that had softened Charlotte up for all the married men she
later met before Jordan who never had wives who understood them either.
"You know why I think you're so beautiful,"
her father used to croon, stroking her chin before he left her to sleep
with his wife. "I think you're beautiful because you're mine . . . ."
And remembering, Charlotte felt sad and
angry. She wondered, glaring out at the desert mountains they were passing,
if she should consider throwing his ashes out the window instead.
unburied, her father still had a hold on her life, like one of his pouncing
tricks, where he'd grip her at a pressure point on her wrist, and paralyze
her, and tickle her side until she gave up.
"Mom!" she'd yell.
"Murray, let her go! What are you trying
to prove, that you're stronger than a ten-year old girl? Don't tease."
He was a dark, wiry, playful man, completely
different as a good-looking type from Jordan, who was broad and light.
The bus arrived in San Miguel. Charlotte
and Jordan took a cab to a hotel that was pink and fancy.
unpacked and made love, an ordinary couple on vacation. Then Jordan fell
asleep. He snored, oblivious to Charlotte's wakefulness, his large body
sprawled over the bed. He was exhausted from the bus trip, and the long
day. Charlotte looked down at her husband, thought about his reasonableness,
and brushed a flap of hair from over his eye. He had beautiful eyes. He
had beautiful cheekbones. Jordan might not be surprised to hear that he
was still her father's rival. But Jordan had been surprised--and more
than a little pleased, she guessed--by the primal way she'd nipped at
his flesh earlier in this bed, displaying her teeth.
She had been visualizing skull teeth in
skull racks in the Mexico City Anthropology Museum while their limbs were
entwining. She and Jordan had visited that museum at the start of their
trip. Next to the skull racks had stood a receptacle for hearts ripped
from sacrificial victims.
Hadn't her father acted like she was ripping his heart out years ago when
she married Jordan? "I'm happy because you're happy," he'd sing-songed
grimly, pinching her cheek too hard.
Jordan sometimes threw that memory into
her face. Jordan claimed that Charlotte had only hooked up with him after
a disastrous marriage to a terrible architect, a man Charlotte had picked
up at twenty-one because she knew she'd better marry someone soon to make
a break with her father--and when that first husband became a Jew for
Jesus, he reminded her how her father had criticized her for a ridiculous
"I thought you were supposed to be so smart!"
her father had said. "How could you leave me for a creep like that?"
But that's the point! she'd wanted to shout
at him. Back then Charlotte was going not just for second-best, but for
fortieth or fiftieth-best. It was a way of fooling myself, Daddy. Not
really breaking with you at all.
the morning they hired a taxi and visited the town next to San Miguel
and the Museum of the Mummies that Jordan read about, which turned out
not to feature real mummies at all but poor Indians buried in the municipal
cemetery whose families could no longer afford to pay the small land fee
each year to rent their graves. They'd been dug up, evicted, and--preserved
by chemicals in the soil--displayed in glass cases with tiny satin pillows
under their heads. The child-mummies wore crowns and tattered cloaks like
saints, the men's penis sacks flopped off to one side, and the women's
breasts were leathery folds. The mummies grinned like a cheap Hollywood
horror movie, mouths agape, as if in screams.
Charlotte turned to Jordan. He, however,
was turning pale. Oh, my God. Would he faint? If she fainted Jordan would throw her over his shoulder like a sack of grain and carry her to
safety. It had happened once at a party. But if Jordan fainted, what would she do?
"The mummies' expressions are from tendon
shrinkage, Jordan." Charlotte steadied her voice. It came out sounding
sarcastic. "It's not a comment on death. It's not from pain."
Then she steadied Jordan too, and led him
down the Museum hallways where male and female skeletons frolicked in
comic Day of the Dead engravings lining the wall.
"How do you know?" Jordan's voice was wary.
"Science. College biology class." Charlotte
jabbed him lightly in the ribs. "What is this, some kind of turnaround?
Suddenly I'm the reasonable one?"
Outside, Jordan straightened his meaty shoulders.
He was embarrassed about his queasiness, but Charlotte realized that she
didn't mind a brief glimpse of his weakness at all. Usually he was unflappable,
and she, the intense, unpredictable spouse. Later, they window-shopped,
looked at the Mexican Bridge of Sighs, and ate moles for lunch.
Then they taxied back to San Miguel.
There, in the city Charlotte's father so
loved, the Todos Santos activities were in full swing. The whole
town was decorated in Day of the Dead cutouts. Yet a woman in a business
suit at the Tourist Office, who looked as though she'd stepped out of
the pages of Mexican Vogue, was evasive about the location of the Indian
vigils. Only superstitious Indians celebrated the occasion, she said.
On the street, children swung hollowed-out jack o'lanterns at them, begging
"Do you think she was trying to stop us?"
"If it was a warning, it was wasted on me."
Jordan tapped his tourist book.
"What does that mean?"
It meant he had a good sense of direction.
He would put it to use.
sun was sliding in and out behind clouds when they joined a long line
of families snaking their way to the muncipal cemetery, which was called
the Pantheon, at the edge of town. Jordan strapped a little plastic canteen
of purified water to his belt. It was a hot dusty day, and celebrants
carried marigolds, magenta coxcombs, palm leaves, bougainvilleas, or wreathes
of moss. Charlotte bought a bouquet of marigolds.
Jordan looked pleased with himself. "We
must be getting close."
Jordan consulted the book and they squeezed
into an alley stuffed with food stands and exuberant balloons. Indian
women hawked pan de muerte and sugar skulls bearing individuals'
"Dos cinquentos, dos cinquentos!"
Flower sellers shouted.
"Festive mourners," Jordan grinned with
sweaty tourist brightness.
The crowd pushed. They surged forward.
The crowd pressed Charlotte and Jordan together,
and against a wire-mesh fence. Charlotte clutched her purse. Any snatcher
would be disappointed because everything was in her moneybelt except for
a comb, lipstick, and a baggie of the ashes. "Do you think we should go
in now or wait until the mob thins?"
"Too late to turn back."
"You're right. More people trying to get
in than trying to leave."
"Isn't it always that way with graveyards?"
They passed through a turnstile. Between
lavish botanical displays and simple wooden crosses on gravesites so close
you had to tread on them to move at all, descendants of the dead milled
and knotted in a brilliant delirium. Children wormed around Charlotte
and Jordan hauling tin soup cans filled with water from a public faucet.
Skinny grandmothers tilted sideways with the weight of their heavy pails.
"Look, they're planting flowers." Jordan
pointed at families pick-axing their plots. Some families exhibited photos
of the departed. Others decorated their plots like little shrines.
Charlotte said, "And they're scattering
She and Jordan tried threading their way
out of the crowd to a main path hedged with trash-cans. The trashcans
were overflowing with piles of yesterday's blooms.
An old Indian man wove past them. He plunged
his arms into one of the trash-cans and sorted through throwaways. Many
discarded flowers were still vivid. The old man flung loose a bough of
bougainvilleas and smoothed out bedraggled gladiolus trumpeting life.
They watched him head purposefully across the cemetery, wearing an expression
Jordan rubbed his brow. "Too poor to buy
flowers. Not too poor to make a graveside offering at some family site
of his own."
"The people can be poor in material goods
but rich in spirit." Old familiar words popped out of Charlotte. One of
her father's clichés. She felt her cheeks grow pink.
"Big hands, big feet! I want you girls to
notice the way Mexican artists show you the dignity of the people," her
father used to exhort. She had grown up with prints of Diego Rivera's
peasants and Orozco's campesinos toiling in the living-room. "Charlotte,
I want you and your sister to learn moral priorities. Forget about race,
forget about class, forget nationalities. Everybody is one in the eyes
of Time." Her father always said Time where others said God. Before her
father had taken that job at the Christmas novelties company, he had been
a political activist, what he liked to call "a free spirit," and free-lance
inventor, stinking up the kitchen with his experiments on the stove. "Patent
pending!" he shouted when her mother squawked. Now her mother lived on
the income from his stinking experiments.
But the patent for his biggest moneymaker--the
fume-free styrofoam molder--was owned by the novelties company in the
South. Her father had traded it for a regular paycheck. "A man's got to
grow up, he's got to put food on his family's table."
It all sounded so corny now. Maybe Charlotte
had replayed the words too often.
Her father had said, "I won't be a wage
slave forever. Your old man will surprise you--and I'll surprise myself
too, one day."
So Charlotte had waited to be surprised.
Jordan said she was kidding herself. Patient Griselda, he called her.
Jordan liked her father but the time her father tried the paralyzing pouncing
trick on Jordan's wrist, Jordan hadn't been paralyzed. The trick didn't
work. Charlotte's father looked confused. He was a man accustomed to displaying
powers around his family, but around Jordan, he seemed jittery. "He's
a nice man, gentle," her father had whispered a month before she got married. "He
might be too gentle for you."
She and Jordan had just celebrated their
seventh anniversary when a large Taiwanese conglomerate bought out the
Christmas novelties company. Her father was fired with a small sum of
severance. "Not exactly a golden handshake, or even a silver one, but
maybe a tin one," he'd cracked, staving off his daughter's concern--"something
more akin to the materials of the poor Mexican artisan's spirit." He was
fifty-nine years old. He didn't want sympathy. Within a month he'd moved
to San Miguel, enrolled in the Instituto de Arte, and taught himself
to sculpt with clay. The heft of clays rejuvenated him, although he had
already developed arthritis, lost flexibility in his hands.
"Do you know what I dreamed last night?"
he said over a fading phone line from Mexico City the last time they talked.
"I was living in an beautiful underground city, all clay. I had molded
all the houses and buildings myself. It was a special kind of clay. It
cured arthritis. I was strong as a horse in that dream, completely flexible,
spinning like a dancer. When I woke up, I realized there must be a way
to infuse ordinary clay with heat to treat people with the same problem
as mine. A formula. Something in capsules that bursts with heat when you
knead it. I worked out the ingredients. I came up with it too.You see,
my formula could be a breakthrough."
"Patent pending," Charlotte murmured in
Jordan tilted his head at her, quizzically.
"What's this business with tearing up different-colored
flower petals?" Jordan peered at mourners bending to sprinkle campasuchil,
fragrant trails, around the graves. "I thought people were just supposed
to create flower paths in their homes around their altars."
"The paths are markers. If the dead get
confused and can't find their way back to their graves they might cause
trouble for the living."
"Something like that." No grave, no flowers.
No wonder her father lost his way back to her.
"Jordan, do you think it's okay we're here?
Maybe we're intruding." Charlotte remembered the chic woman in the Tourist
Office. "We're the only gringos in sight."
"Then I want to bury my father's ashes here
"Here now?" Jordan stopped, exasperated.
Two small girls in party dresses and ribbons walking behind them bumped
into Jordan and ran away. Charlotte waited for Jordan to go pale as he
had that morning. Instead, Jordan alarmed her by turning red. "You need
a permit to bury him in this graveyard. This is the municipal cemetery.
There's not enough space, just look around. I thought you were going to
scatter him in the central plaza, in the Jardin--"
"Too touristy," Charlotte shrugged. That
had been the plan she'd thrown at Jordan after his queasiness at the Museum
of the Mummies, when the timing had been right for enlisting his support.
When the music was playing, she'd said, they'd scatter the ashes by the
bandstand. Her father would get a real send-off. But now Charlotte was
stirred by the pageantry of all these grieving mourners. She
was grieving too. Her father ought to end up in a dignified place. She
pictured the Jardin with its dense plane trees, dispirited mariachi
players and car traffic circling, on one side armed police with bandoliers
and ragged Indian-rights protesters on the other. "It's too polluted there,
too busy. He'll be kicked under taxis and out into the street."
"But it's more crowded here. Here, today,
everybody will be walking on him."
"I don't think he'd mind. He always identified
with the downtrodden."
She waited for Jordan to smile. Jordan didn't.
Charlotte's father would have loved it,
though. Around the house, he always teased and bragged and strutted. In
the heat of summer he stripped down to his jockey shorts, even answering
the door that way, occasionally forgetting and snapping the waistband
while he talked.
"Murray, get out of the doorway! People
are looking at you." "Let them look. What do I care?" he'd say, while
Charlotte and her sister huddled, giggling. They were thrilled by his
audacity. Maybe that's why men had families. Captive audiences.
"Then just get it over with," Jordan said.
"Dump the damned ashes."
Charlotte winced. "Maybe I ought to
"You know, you really are a genius at picking
a place to fight. We travel all the way here and I do everything you want
because I know this is some kind of big psychological deal for you, but
the first time I don't want to go along with your crazy scheme you threaten
to leave. Well, what if I left? You and your father. You don't need me."
"Hey," Charlotte said. She was hurt. "I
didn't know you thought my plans to bury my father were a scheme."
Jordan snorted. That made her mad.
She said, "You missed the point."
"I have to do this right."
"There is no right way to bury somebody.
He's dead. You loved him. He was your father. That's always going to feel
She stalked away from Jordan fast, crisscrossing
He followed. He grabbed for her.
She ducked. "Besides, you owe me an apology.
I see a perfectly good space for burying him."
She stabbed her thumb at a corner far off
the main path, a plot of dry earth where no one was standing.
"No, you can't bury him there." Jordan zigzagged.
He eyed the site. "It's already a grave."
She shot him a wary look. She sidled towards
the plot herself and squinted at a granite marker. Spidery words in English
were chipped into stone: Sadye Levy, 1919-1979. She loved all and
was loved by all. Next to the name was a small Star of David.
"Oh, Jordan! What am I going to do?" Frustration
welled up and made Charlotte weepy. "I'll never find a place for him,
will I? And wouldn't you know it? The woman who is buried here was Jewish,
the same as he was."
Jordan nodded, noncommittal. That was just
like him, he was still reaching for her hand. "Check out that fancy spelling
"It's an old-fashioned name, a leftover
from an earlier generation--" She yanked it away.
"Leftover Sadye," he said, without skipping
a beat. He stared at the plot. "Probably an American who died here with
no family to take care of her grave."
Charlotte looked down too. She spotted the
bones scattered on the top of the grave a second after he did. Human bones
stained almost the same color as the earth, large fragments except for
two long thick bones with bifurcated knobs on top like anatomy class photos
of thighbones, one snapped in half and jagged, the other strewn but intact.
"Are they ... do you think . . . they're
Sadye's bones?" Her heart dove, as if pounced upon, in her chest.
"Probably," Jordan nodded.
At an adjoining site, a teenaged boy in
a white dress shirt pulled away from his family and dropped onto all fours.
He kicked and scraped the dirt from a slab with such violent speed that
Charlotte thought he must be throwing a temper tantrum.
She felt dizzy, weak, another pounce in
her chest. A life was a small thing. These bones once inhabited it. Charlotte's
heart felt like a small creature, trying to fly.
"Let's cover her up. It's not right for
her bones to be lying out here, naked and broken. Let's cover her with
more flowers from the trashcan." She flung down her marigolds. They barely
hid one of the shattered fragments. Maybe something about this was a message
from her father. Crazy idea! Her father would have pooh-poohed it. Listlessly,
Charlotte shoved dirt with her foot.
"How about if we leave the cemetery and
buy more flowers--"
"No, that will take too long. The trashcan."
She raised her voice.
Jordan frowned but didn't budge.
Locals who had politely averted their eyes
turned from nearby gravesites and stared.
"Then I'll do it, Jordan. You stay here
and guard the grave."
"Guard the grave?"
She straightened slowly, wondering why Jordan
looked surprised and not disturbed by the bones the way he had been by
the naked mummies this morning, and then realized that she'd just used
a childish expression ("Guard the fort! Guard the wagons! Guard the dolls!"),
a throwback to games with her family. She lurched forward, began striding--what
Jordan dubbed her "window-shaking stride"--thumping the earth so hard
and moving so fast that she had to switch back and forth and step around.
So many mourners everywhere! They seemed to be swirling, faces popping
out at her as she tried to squeeze past. Heat and dust pressed on her.
She was dazed, dazzled, enclosed in a kaleidoscope of colors. It seemed
like blind luck when she finally found the path with its trashcans overflowing
Since she'd passed the trashcans earlier,
mourners had thrown their old food on top of the garbage heap, and she
swept the top layer right off with the flowers. She didn't know why she
felt this need to keep a stranger's bones from abandonment. But it didn't
matter where the flowers came from. Throw my body in the garbage when
I'm done, her father had told her. Then her world tipped over, one
glorious globe-sized dump.
Charlotte? her father's voice whispered.
She swiveled around, looking for him. She
could picture him perfectly--hear his sarcastic asides, his dry cough,
see his eyebrows arching when he went to make change for a twenty at the
gas station and, unable to grasp it, watched the wind blow the money from
his arthritic hand.
Of course, he wasn't there. And she'd lost sight of Jordan too. She clutched
old dying flowers, a giant heap, precariously in her arms. She peered
around them. It wasn't the first time she'd gotten lost, confused about
which way to go. Jordan sometimes made fun of her for this.
But it wasn't Jordan's fault she'd gotten
lost. It was her own--or maybe her father's. He used to like to steer
her forward, or sideways, or backwards. When she was little she loved
when he walked behind her, with his big hands around her waist.
Charlotte stood on tiptoes, panicking a
little, scanning for Jordan. What if he'd fainted? Then she thought of
how red he had turned. Oh, shit! That had been stupid of her to pick a
fight. What if he had a heart attack, like her father? Jordan was such
a big man--tall, not too muscular, not too stout--and Charlotte felt certain
that she ought to be able to spot the gold gleam of his hair. He ought
to be the highest human point in the cemetery. But looking around, she
saw that many Mexican men in the Pantheon wore straw hats that made them
Her eye was caught by something, something
above, whipping the dust, splitting the air, gripping her fingers. She
couldn't move. She was paralyzed even as she noticed Jordan twenty feet
away, loping towards her, grumpily, from the opposite direction.
Jordan called, "Where the hell have you
"Duck!" She heard a buzzing rasp. Something
was out of control. "It's my father, Jordan!"
Jordan flung his arm up as if protecting
But he was only waving, reaching for her,
then pulling up alongside, hugging her tight. "What's going on? Why are
you acting crazy? I think you're having a panic reaction. Sweetie, if
this is just a one-time event, I'll get you more flowers from the garbage
He was bargaining with her. He held onto
her all the way back to the trashcan where he scooped flowers, and all
the way back to Sadye Levy's gravesite.
Jordan hurled his flowers over the bones.
He pitched them with a wild energy that took Charlotte by surprise. Red
dust smudged his face. They crouched, not exactly praying, and not exactly
meditating, although Charlotte whispered a few words of Kaddish. She unzipped
her purse. The ashes were twisted in a plastic baggie. She untied the
baggie. She dipped her hand into it and held the ashes for a long time,
grinding them into her palm. The ashes were gritty. Jordan shook her shoulder.
He wanted her to let go.
Charlotte turned the baggie upside-down
and the ashes fell loose. A breeze suspended them for a moment, swept
particles of her father against her, and then the ashes dropped and spread
onto the loose earth. Charlotte bent and mixed her hands in ashes and
soil, and then mixed the ashes and soil together with Sadye Levy's bones
She picked up a bone. The bones felt light. Charlotte felt light, as if
the ashes had been weighing her down.
She and Jordan buried the ashes alongside
Jordan sighed. "This gravesite will certainly
get dug up again."
Charlotte guessed that he was probably right.
She looked around. At the cemetery's perimeter
boys were whitewashing crypts, inscribing names on freshly-laid plaster
with broken twigs. In New York City, her home, these boys would be inscribing
graffiti in hallways. For a moment, for a few moments, she had brushed
up against another world. When Charlotte focused on Jordan again, she
could tell from his expression that he was contemplating his strangeness
here the same way she was, the fact that they were strangers, strangers
to each other, and tourists in the land of the living, scuttling through
Jordan wiped his hands on his pants. They
left the gravesite.
"Most markers," Jordan was explaining,
cleaning dirt and ashes from under his fingernails as they passed fresh
crowds pushing in for Day of the Dead, "have the word refrescado and a date painted on the back. Not hers. Our gal Sadye didn't pay the
They stopped before they left the cemetery
at the public faucet near the turnstile to wash their hands. Jordan unsnapped
the plastic water canteen from his belt.
He hoisted the canteen at Charlotte. "To
your father," he toasted. He passed her the purified water. "You did right
by him, Charlotte, even if we argued about it. You made his trip."
"Yeah, but the handful of ashes I brought
with me are only a small part of his remains."
Jordan smacked his hand humorously against
his forehead. "At this rate you can go on burying him for the rest of
"It might take that long." Charlotte sipped
from the canteen.
Some children pushed by and splashed into
the faucet. The sun coasted free of a cloud and little prisms of light
danced on water droplets. Charlotte recognized that feeling again, like
a phantom heartbeat. Something was loosening its hold.