Noe Valley Voice March 1998

Day of the Dead

By Denise Minor

NOT A BEAUTIFUL BEACH BY any means. But on a day like today, with the sun so sweet and warm, it is a pleasant place to be. Underneath my sandals, fragments of sand dollars snap into even smaller fragments. The tide has left bits of kelp sprawled helpless on the wet sand.

Aunt Emilia sits on a wobbly kitchen chair with a glass of burgundy placed on the table in front of her. A white scarf is draped around her face with one end slipped over her shoulder. She is wearing oval sunglasses that I've never seen before. I wonder, Do the dead try new fashions?

I approach quickly and she smiles. Her white skin folds in soft wrinkles, chalky with powder. The red lipstick is spread perfectly, unlike the uneven smears she used to put on during the last years of her life. This is how she wanted to look.

I sit next to her on the sand and look up.

Aunt Emilia was the woman in the basement bedroom, Grandma's never-married sister who lived with us from the time I was 2. Hours, I spent, digging in the garden with her. Clipping and unclipping beaded, shiny earrings on her earring tray. Gawking at the voluptuous women on the covers of her paperbacks. Perching next to her on the couch and typing on her 40-year-old manual while she smoked and watched soap operas.

Hours, she spent, listening to my imagination.

Then, when I turned 11, our adventures began. The first was a night train to Salt Lake City. She rented a berth with a double bed, but I was too thrilled to sleep.

Aunt Emilia sips her wine and smiles. "Remember the boat to Victoria Island?" she asks.

It's the first time I've heard her voice in five years.

"You were so seasick," she says.

I nod. "And on top of it I had my period so bad it made me cry. You brought me hot-water bottles all day and told me that, in spite of the pain, it was still good to be female."

She pats my cheek as she always did and looks at the misty waves crashing yards away.

The question catches in my throat, but I push it out.

"Why didn't you wait?"

She says nothing, but shakes her head back and forth. Her hand is still on my cheek.

"I had tickets to be home in just two more weeks. Couldn't you have held out?"

"The pain was everything, my dear," she replies.

"But I wanted to say goodbye."

She smiles and shakes her head. "There was no need."

"Yes, there was. For me there was."

She takes my hand in her bony fingers and chews on her lip, the way she did every time I left. Behind the dark glasses I am sure her eyes are wet.

"All right, dear. You can say it now."

I get up on my knees, move closer, and put my arms around her.

"Goodbye," I whisper next to her cheek. My heart is pounding hard, banging inside my ribs against hers. But Aunt Emilia's chest is silent.

I stand up quickly, afraid to think about this, and turn to walk away. The sun is higher and hotter. The tide has receded, and small crab breathing holes have appeared on the wet beach. Tiny jellyfish lie about glittering and abandoned.

Sandpipers are playing tag with the waves while overhead seagulls caw mournfully.

Elaine Fredricks is sitting on the black office chair she always used at her work table. It has wheels and grows taller or shorter, depending on which way you spin it.

She is furiously smoking a cigarette.

"What are you doing here?" I ask.

She snaps her head in my direction. "I am waiting for someone to listen to the truth."

Mrs. Fredricks lived down the street from us and was my best friend's mother. I always said that the thing I liked about her was that she was the only mom on the block who would swear in front of us.

"Pompous ass," she sneered one day as her friend's husband walked out the front door. We snickered and repeated "pompous ass" for hours.

But that wasn't really it. The thing I liked best about her was something I found hard to name. It was the thing she held inside, only to let out in bursts of cigarette smoke or wicked laughter.

"You cried at the funeral," she says, softer now. "Even more than my son."

"I liked you," I say. "I liked to be in your house."

Her creations filled her home -- curtains, birdhouses, doll houses, doll clothes, people clothes, Christmas decorations, and cornucopias. Lonnie called her mom a domestic artist. But I was certain she wanted to be more than that.

In my senior year at the university, I came home at spring break to learn that Mrs. Fredricks was found dead, for no reason the coroner could determine, at her cabin at the reservoir. She was there alone to get some reading done. Or so the story went.

"Couldn't happen today," she says, getting angry again. "But everyone used to be so damned polite. They wouldn't ask anything upsetting to the grieving family."

"Were you murdered?" I ask.

Mrs. Fredricks only chuckles and taps her ashes on the chair.

"I will say this," she lowers her voice and exhales a rigid stream of smoke. "If the explanation doesn't sound right, it's because something isn't right.

"Think back," she whispers now. "Think of all the deaths you knew of that didn't make sense in our town. Remember how Cookie Rourke shot herself at the age of 16 just because she didn't get her letter in track? Remember Kathy Frances who fell off the boat while her husband was driving it?"

I back up and trip a little.

She stands and takes a deep breath. I can tell she doesn't want me to leave.

"Please, Denise, remember these things," says Mrs. Fredricks, now in an even tone.

I nod to show I'm listening.

"If the explanation doesn't sound right, it isn't," she says, then sits down and looks sadly at the hand holding her cigarette.

"And never, ever stay with a man who doesn't love you."

I walk over and awkwardly touch her shoulder. Funny, I think, I never touched her when she was alive.

"Thank you," I say, then turn and walk up the slope, past a bloated disposable
diaper and onto a dry flat place. The wind has picked up and is tossing stinging sand at my ankles.

A young man is squatting on an upside-down crate twisting pliers on the engine of a racing motorcycle.

I draw closer and see with a quickening heart that this is a face I would have known well. He has his father's red hair and my dark eyes, and he would be about 19.

He looks up coldly from his work.

"Why didn't you let me live?" he asks.

"I...I...was too young," I answer, then pause. "I'm sorry but I had to be selfish. I was afraid that the life I pictured for myself would disappear forever."

He looks back at the engine and continues to unscrew something. "I was going to be the best dirt bike racer that ever came out of Idaho. At races, older guys would snicker when they saw me walk up to my bike, just 12 or 13 years old. But they wouldn't be laughing when I crossed the finish line ahead of them."

I nod, not sure how to feel about this talent.

"I would have been very easygoing. I would have been a teenager that never hated you," he says. "Almost never."

I gasp, knowing full well the importance of this, as I picture my two small hotheaded boys at home.

"I have two kids now," I say hopefully. "They wouldn't exist if you'd been born."

He shakes his head and exhales with a "ttt" sound, a strange mannerism his father used to have. "That doesn't matter to me."

No, of course it doesn't.

"I'm sorry," I whisper as I walk backwards, already in love with my grown-up son who never lived, then turn and head up the beach.

It's late afternoon now. The sun is shining in my eyes, so I cock my head to the side as I walk. Beneath my feet, blackened bits of bonfire wood and charcoal snap. I step over a burnt log and spot him further up the beach sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner.

"Daddy?" I ask when I'm close enough. My heart is pounding.

He looks up over bifocals from a crossword puzzle.

"What's a four-letter word for 'dispossession'?" he asks.

"I don't know," I reply, heartbroken that I can't answer the only question my father has ever asked me. He just nods and looks back at the puzzle.

"Dad," I say, stepping closer, "why didn't you stay alive?"

His eyebrows lift and seem to pick up his whole head. He takes a moment to focus on me, a moment to shake his mind from the page.

"I hear of it all the time," I say. "People are on death's door, or dead even, and they see white light and angels, and they decide to come back to the world. Why didn't you do that -- for me and for Mom?"

"Oh, Denise," he says, shaking his head and putting his puzzle down. Just the way he says my name, with love and impatience, the way no one has ever said it, makes me start to cry.

"Yes, those things happen. But almost never."

"But you could have done it," I say. "You could have mustered all your strength and pulled yourself back into your damaged head. You should have done it. I would have been so much happier."

"You don't know that," he says softly.

But I do know that. I've known that since I was small -- maybe 5 years old -- and found a black-and-white photo of a dark-haired man with his arm draped casually across Mother's shoulders.

"Your daddy," Aunt Emilia had told me hoarsely, after taking a deep breath and laying aside the snapshot I had brought to her bedroom. "He passed away when you were 2."

Oh yes, I remember thinking. Those big hands that picked me up easily. That voice and scratchy face. And in the next moment I realized that we didn't have a man in our house, and that all my friends did.

"You should NOT have died!" I say loudly and with more certainty than I've said anything in my life. But my father can't hear me. He is scratching small letters into the book on his lap.

I turn away and run in the other direction, past the burnt log and toward the setting sun. Waves are picking up and sucking away the sand dollars and diapers, the charcoal and kelp. Everyone is gone except the brazen seagulls and the skittery sandpipers.

Denise Minor is a Spanish teacher, writer, and, with her husband Alex Milgram, a parent of two preschool boys. She has been a contributor to the Noe Valley Voice for more than 13 years.