Tuesday, May 28, 2013


"Good lord, Marlis! Your feet stink."

I thought I smelled something funky when she first got in the car. Something like wet dog, or corn chips. I should have know it was her feet. 

"They do not, these shoes are breathable!" She folds her legs into my Duster and closes the door with considerable effort, a creak, and a slam. She hoists one leg up onto the dashboard and points at her foot, slipping around inside a pair of Carolina Blue Jellies. Jellies. Christ himself would have had stinky feet, had he walked around in a pair of Jellies. 

"Breathe-uh-ble," she repeats. Her skirt slides up to a knobby knee. Her legs are thin, young, tan, and dirty. She's not shaved in maybe ever, and there's something that looks like oatmeal stuck to her ankle. 

"Did you have oatmeal for breakfast, Marlis?" I ask, and she picks the food off her ankle. 

"Eggs," she says and looked for a moment like she might pop the morsel in her mouth. Instead, she throws it in the floorboard. She pushes her sunglasses up on her nose and leaned the seat back. "Let's go," she says.

I turn the car around, narrowly missing dogs and hogs, and head down the long dirt drive. In the rearview mirror, I watch her trailer grow smaller, swallowed up by a cloud of dust. 

"I don't know why they had to have the service in Beaumont," she purses her lips and sucks her teeth disapprovingly. "Fancy."

"Well, Elma was fancy." I say, though if pressed I might have wondered if it had more to do with Elma's daughters than her. "GODDAMN!"

The smell punches me square in the nose and I nearly run off the road. "GodDAMN, Marlis! Put your shoes back on!" She's taken off the Jellies and thrown her stankass feet up on the dashboard. 

"It is a long RIDE, Conrad, and my feet are hot." Her feet are crisscrossed with indentations from the shoes, red and angry. They sit up on the dash like a weird, podiatric ornament. She lets her knees fall apart, and fans herself with the bottom of her skirt. The resulting breeze sends the smell of her feet all the way through the car. 

"Oh, God. You got to stop that," I moan. "It's like a convection oven in here." 

"Roll down the window if it's bothering you that bad!" She snipes, fanning faster. 

"You know I got the air conditioner going, Marlis! If I opened a window, it would let all the cold air out!"

"Apparently, your air conditioner don't work worth a shit, Conrad, because if it did my feet wouldn't be all swoll up and on fire!" With that, she reaches down onto the floorboard, picks up those godawful Jellies, and sets them up on the dash. 

"You want me to open a window?" I ask.

"I wish you damned would."

I crank the window down furiously, turning the handle so violently that I nearly hurt myself. Then I grab her shoes and throw them out. The wind catches them for a minute, then they're bouncing along the side of the highway, plastic tumbleweeds.

"Conrad!" She bolts up in her seat, mouth open, eyes wide. Then we start to laugh. We laugh so hard that we forgot to turn around and get the shoes. We laughed until we cried, and then she kept right on crying even after I stopped. We pull into town, down the side street behind the church and into the parking lot. 

"Damn, Marlis, I hate you have to go to the funeral without any shoes on."

She looked at me and sighed, "Not like it's the first time."

Monday, May 20, 2013


"Daddy won't wake up."

That is all my brother said, and I said, "I'll be right there," and hung up the phone before he told me anything else. 

We had been waiting for him to die all week, watching as he slept more and ate less. He could barely hold his eyes open the day before, as he looked at my daughter and said the last words I'd ever hear him say. 

"She's such a pretty girl."

The phone had woken me, but the sun was up. I broke a nail on the closet door as I was getting dressed, and chewed it smoothe on the drive over. Twenty forever minutes while is he dead is he dead rolled through my head on a continuous loop. 

He was not. 

He was not dead, but he would not wake up. His chest rattled and his feet were cold and we would spend all day watching that coldness creep over his body. We would spend all day greeting friends and family and talking to nurses and swabbing his lips to keep them moist. We would talk and take the flicker of an eyelid as acknowledgement. I read the Reader's Digest aloud and made bad jokes and pressed my body against his in a vain attempt to get him warm. To keep him alive. 

That night, my mother drifted off to sleep next to him, and I fell asleep in his chair in the living room. I woke not much later not to a sound, but to an absence of sound. My brother, standing in the living room, his head cocked toward the bedroom door. We walked in together, silently, and knew he was gone. I sat on the bed and my mother woke up and said his name and I screamed, Don't turn on the light!, but only in my head. 

And then they turned on the light and made it real; made him inescapably, unavoidably, gone. 


It cannot possibly be a decade since I tried to warm my father's dying body, since I watched my mother fall in on herself. She folded in and in over and over until she was hardly there at all. It cannot possibly be a decade since I last held his hand or kissed his face or heard his voice. 

This week, a friend lost her father after an illness that robbed him of strength and dignity. The kind of illness that makes faithful people say things like 'at least he is no longer in pain', and, 'his suffering is over'. The kind of illness that brings a heavy, unwelcome respite to caregivers. She asked the same question that I asked, that everyone asks - when? When does it get easier? When do I get to feel normal? Like I felt before all of this?

I sigh and smile and avoid the question, because the answer is never. 

Eventually, the fog lifts. Sometime after that, pictures bring smiles and not tears. Later, you can laugh and not feel guilty. One day, you can sit and write about the day your father died and not be turned inside out with grief, hollow with loss.

I wish I could hold her hands and take her into the future, to the time when the clarity of details begins to blur. When you can't remember exactly what you wore and what they said. When you can look back and think, oh, it wasn't so bad, even when something inside reminds you that it was. Time turns snapshots into watercolors, making pain go soft. I wish I could speed up time and have her here with me, when memories are sweet and faith is strong and there is no doubt that we will laugh again.