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From It Doesn't Have to Be Me
By Carole Rosenthal
The Red Plastic Gun
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' TV films.
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.
Days of the Dead
Through 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 tradition.
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 proclaimed ¡Hola!
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 to him.
"'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.
Yet 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.
They 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 choice.
"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.
In 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 for coins.
"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.
The 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' names.
"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?" Jordan teased.
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 flowers."
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 of triumph.
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 the graveyard.
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 now."
"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 dump you."
"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 wrong."
She stalked away from Jordan fast, crisscrossing gravesites.
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 of Sadie."
"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 with flowers.
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 tall.
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 been?"
"Duck!" She heard a buzzing rasp. Something was out of control. "It's my father, Jordan!"
Jordan flung his arm up as if protecting himself.
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 can."
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 the bones.
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 sights.
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 rent."
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 your life."
"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.
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