Maggie May Ethridge
The day Grandpa came back from the dead they had all fallen into a deep afternoon restitution, brought on by the July heatwave and grief. Diana and Larry fell asleep on the covered porch, Rodger on Grandma's living room couch, June upstairs next to Grandma in her bed and Dingo, Rodger's dog, slept outside under the rose bush, where the hose dripping water had turned dirt into cool mud.
Grandpa was old but, they had all thought, healthy and active. Everyone assumed Grandma would die first- she wasn’t active, complained of migraines and stomach aches and looked generally less hale than tan, fit Grandpa. Diana and Larry had a fight that morning about the burial costs; Larry wanted to pay for part of it while Diana said they had no budge. Rodger was dropped out of college and June worked at the Lancaster Yarn Shop and took classes at night, one at a time, like water dripping out of a faucet, and both kids took up more of their parent's income than they realized. Rodger more than June, because he wasn't working anything but side jobs and kept most of that money. He had two new tattoos and drank at the Dixon bar a few times a week and even paid to have Dingo's anal glands squeezed, but he never bought milk and every week asked Larry to get dog food at the grocers.
June woke to her cell phone and Grandma's sleeping profile, her mouth all bunched up and sad in the millions of sad lines that came before and now scurried together like a big ball of string, tightening her lips into that old lady scowl June associated with her Great-Grandmother, a domineering and mustached woman who had lived until 92 years old, refusing to wear her false teeth and squatting to take a dump in her vegetable garden whenever she could escape her caregiver.
" Hello? "
" Is this June Lobert Caliber? "
" Yes it is. Can I help you? "
" This is Clarkson County Morgue calling Mrs. Caliber, I'm Dee, I work as the coroner's assistant here. I have some startling news for your family… I could not find a number for the wife of Mr. Caliber. "
" They don't- it's a long story. What’s going on? "
" Well I don't know how to tell you this any other way, but your grandfather is not dead. He's alive, and he's been returned to Clarkson hospital. "
" What? What are you talking about? There wasn't a mix up, I saw him myself- "
" No ma'am, no mix up. It's the first time we've ever experienced anything like this, but it appears your grandfather was not dead when you- or we- thought he was. We are not sure what happened. The coroner believes it must have something to do with his pacemaker. "
June wiped drool from the side of her mouth. " He had that in a few years ago. "
" Well, he woke up here. He woke up here. " She sounded disbelieving of it herself.
" Are you sure? Ernest Caliber? 83 years old? "
" Yes ma'am, that is the gentleman. Do you know how we can contact his wife? "
" She's right here. Oh my god. Look, let me talk to her first. Let me talk to her and my parents, and we'll call back. "
" Call me back at this number in the next hour? "
The ride to the hospital was silent, all of them packed in, overheated. Rodger sat with his fat fingers pressing his iPhone, leaving soft fingerprints. Grandma Cora burnt her leg on the metal lock of the seatbelt and rode hand pressed to thigh. She kept her lips compressed to keep from crying in shame. As soon as Juney told her, she knew that it was true- it was just like him, to create a ruckus and stand back and watch it all. He didn't have to do anything. He just lay there and watched it all! She was the one, like always, who had to do all the talking, managing, fussing, worrying. Everything was a game for Ernest, even death. Still, the sharp disappointment she felt in hearing he was alive was a hard pill to swallow. She often thought one of the benefits of being old was that there was nothing knew to learn about oneself. You carried on with the business of life not worrying about what you might do or say or feel. Yet here she was, bitter that her husband was not dead. Not only was he not dead, but he was making her feel badly about herself. And she worked hard for her family, calling, keeping them together, soothing her easily agitated oldest son when he complained about his wife, nudging her granddaughter to wash her hair more thoroughly. She'd gone out on her job hunt with greasy hair and flip flops! No idea how to present herself and less of an idea how to get what she wanted. Unlike Juney's grandfather, who got what he wanted without lifting a finger.
June looked out the dirty passenger seat window and closed her eyes. She hasn't slept well the night before and her stomach hurt. She'd had these terrible stomachaches since childhood, when she'd cry and beg her mother to stay home from school, please, just one more time. The school nurse was a fat faced, soft spoken woman who gave June a cool compress for her forehead and let her lay on the stained cot for fifteen minutes before she'd have to go back to class. June had been- was?- Grandpa's favorite grandchild, the one who inherited his blunt gaze and pointy chin, as well as his aura of self containment. June found that people often thought, on first meeting her, that she was a snobby bitch. It took months, but usually June became a favorite person, loved and coddled by everyone who once couldn't stand her. Grandma couldn't stand this same quality in her husband. She didn't like or understand why he should get so much love and adoration without doing anything for it, especially since she herself had worked so hard to earn love from all her favorite people, including her own mother. Seeing this quality passed down to her only granddaughter did not make her happy. During June's brief period of unemployment, June finally came home one day with a job, but instead of being happy, Grandma was irritated. Why had she been hired, Grandma wanted to know, when she wore a Nirvana tee shirt to the job interview? Didn't that company have standards? June just shrugged, which irritated Grandma even more.
" Shrugging, " she said " is a very passive-aggresive way of saying fuck you."
" Grandma! "
" I should know. I've lived with your Grandfather for 48 years. "
" Grandma! "
Cora made a droll face. " I think we know who I am now, dear. " June thought that the way Grandma said dear was as passive-aggressive as anything June had ever done.
At the hospital Grandma Cora and Larry went in to Grandpa's room before the others, who stayed drinking cafeteria coffee, glued to their phones in the waiting room. Fifteen minutes later, Cora and Larry came walking in side by side. Larry moved his hand over his chin in a downward swipe, over and over. " It's the damnest thing I have ever seen, " he said. " He was dead, Dad was dead, and now he's not. " He leaned forward and lowered his voice. " He woke up half zipped in the damn body bag. "
The family all looked at each other's faces. " Oh my god, " said Diana. " I mean… oh my god. " She spread her hands out in an appeal to the horror. Rodger shook his head and turned around, walked to the wall and turned back around, tears in his eyes.
" I can’t stand that. I cannot think of him stuck in a body bag. Poor Grandpa! " Rodger slumped in the chair and began crying softly into his hands.
" How is he? Mentally, I mean? What did he say? " Diana asked.
Grandma licked her lips. " He's Ernest, he’s fine. He- " here her voice broke because she was a terrible liar, and Ernest had not been OK. For the first time in her life, Cora had seen her husband terrified, shaking and trembling and holding her waist with his bruised arms, telling her that he loved her and he wanted to go home. She had looked at her son and Larry looked back at her, frozen. He put a stiff hand on his father's bent head. " Now Dad, it's OK now. "
Grandma continued, " He's all right. He didn't like it, of course! " This small outburst embarrassed her, and she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. " The doctors said he'd have to stay a while. For tests, and monitoring. "
Larry, still dazed, rubbed his chin. " This kind of thing is illegal. This is wrong. "
Rodger drug his tee shirt over his eyes and looked annoyed. " Dad. Not being dead isn't illegal. That makes no sense. No one did anything to him. "
Diana said, " He needs mental health services. We should talk to the hospital, Dad's doctor. "
" The doctor spoke with Larry and I. They will be bringing someone in today to talk to him, before dinner, the doctor thought. He said they don't know what happened yet. They have to run their tests, but he felt sure the pacemaker had something to do with it, like the coroner told Juney. They don't want anymore visitors tonight. He has to rest. "
Rodger slumped sullenly in his chair. " I'm going to have nightmares. Major nightmares. This is straight out of Nightmare on Elm Street. Twilight Zone. How are we supposed to- what are we supposed to do the next time he dies? Sit with him for a week and feel his pulse? "
" Other cultures have rituals like that, actually. " said June. " They sit with the body for a certain amount of hours or days and say prayers, light candles, whatever. I guess you're pretty sure someone's dead after three days. "
" That's strange, " said Larry, looking down at his phone, scrolling.
" That's morbid, " Diana grimaced.
" Not as morbid as waking up in a body bag, Mom! " Rodger said. Grandma Cora put a hand up, her left hand, with the wedding ring on.
" That's enough Rodger, really. " The family all turned and looked at Grandma, her liver-spotted hand trembling in the air. Why, Cora thought, does everyone in this family have to look at a person when something happens. Some people have the sense to look away, give a person room. Cora was suddenly exhausted. " I'm going back in the room now. I'll be here until dinner. " She looked hopefully at them. Maybe someone would insist on coming with her. No. Cowards. She didn't want to back her self- what to say to Ernest like that, whimpering and strange smelling, like sour chicken? Getting old already meant you smelled differently, and if you want morbid, Cora thought, sometimes she thought it was the smell of advanced cell death, which is the polite way of saying rot. Was she rotting? Four of her teeth had fallen out, she had metal in the pudding of her knees and didn't like the way her skin felt paper soft. Recently she had just swiped her arm across a prickly patch of wallpaper and a huge blue and black bruise welled up. As she remembered this, the burn on her thigh began to bite.
Cora thought that now, she had to know a new thing about her husband also, a bad new thing- that he could be deeply shaken. A naive discovery, she thought to herself, stupid. Of course he can be shaken. He's a person, like any other flesh and bone person! Yet the fact remained that in all their years together she had never seen him so. She pictured her husband, how the realization of where he was and what had happened must have dawned slowly on him, shocked and ill, looking down at the zipper and upward at the bright bald lights of the mortuary. Had all those years of reading crime novels allowed him to recognize sooner, see the details for what they were? Cora stood and said, " OK then. "
Diana turned to Larry. " Honey, you should go. Go sit with them. "
Larry glanced upward from his phone at his mother. " I think Mom wants to be in there, you know, just the two of them. " He resumed a solemn scroll.
Cora waved away her oldest son. " Larry you can come back tomorrow morning. You all go home. Someone needs to call Harris. Larry? " Harris, Cora and Ernest's younger son, was supposed to be coming up in three days for a funeral. Larry nodded.
June spoke quietly. " He's not dead. He's alive. " They all nodded. Rodger hugged June. " Grandpa is alive, " she whispered into his neck.
Larry spoke up, " How are you going to get home then? We all came together? " In their shock, they had all piled into Larry's Chevy, leaving Dingo out back.
" I can take a cab. " Grandma replied.
" Grandma I'll stay. I'm fine, I have nowhere to be, I'll just wait until dinner and then we can get a cab together, " Rodger said.
Diana hugged her son and daughter in one motion. " That's sweet, Rodger. " Rodger was the firstborn and her son, and she loved both her children equally. Yet Diana had overwhelmingly favored raising her daughter. As a result, she fussed over Rodger whenever possible, praising him and running errands with him or for him, asking him about his work on an old Mustang, taking an interest in even the most mundane aspects of his life, showering him with affection. As a reward, she allowed herself to indulge without guilt time spent with her daughter, hiking and watching 80's movies and baking dark chocolate desserts that often ended up being eaten before put in the oven. More guilt- Diana knew raw dough was bad for you; she shouldn't be giving it to June. June, 23 and still unable to hold one ounce of fat on her jutting collarbone and knock-knees. June was the kind of daughter every woman who dreams of daughters desires- the kind that want to be close to their mother, that don't find the softness of their mother’s arms disgusting and the suggestions from experience infuriating.When Diana hugged June, June hugged back harder. Only twice had Diana worried she was losing June- once at 14, when June spent an entire summer locked in her bedroom, playing music, drawing and eating endless peanut butter and honey sandwiches with milk, and then again at 16, when June had her first boyfriend, a sweet young man Diana and Larry had no problem with until he began showing up at their house late at night, drunk. That was a long winter.
Once everyone left for home and Rodger headed downstairs to the cafeteria, Cora sat by herself for a few minutes. She had been in this hospital many times; after Ernest and she relocated here when the kids were 8 and 10, there were broken arms, the time Rodger got a popcorn kernel stuck in his ear canal, worrisome flus, the hernia operation Ernest put off too long, the horrible back pain Cora had late one night that turned out to be kidney stones. Now she was here because her husband died and came back to life in a body bag in the mortuary. She had herself think that again: my husband died and came back to life in a body bag. Then again: my husband died and came back to life in a body bag. She repeated this four more times, but it remained too bizarre to grasp. What, she wondered, would Ernest and I said about this years ago? Maybe in our 40's. Let's say 45. Hey, she imagined saying, did you hear that Peter died and the ambulance took him away, but then he came back to life and woke up in a body bag? She tried to fill in Ernest's response, but could only see his smiling face, a stubborn twinkle in his eye. He would say nothing.
In the hospital room, Ernest lay watching a documentary on fly fishing, even though he hated fish to the point where if Cora cooked it for dinner, Ernest would eat his own food in the living room. He turned his head and gave a half smile. There were shadows under his eyes. " Hello Cora. " She sat on the side of the bed and put her hand on his shoulder, leaning in to kiss his cheek. Ernest touched his cheek where she had kissed it, and Cora was so surprised by this she had to turn her head. She felt the tubes running from Ernest's arms and chests with one finger. She supposed they kept these things temperature regulated, liquids going into a body, out of a body.
" Well everyone's gone, almost, Rodger is eating in the cafeteria. I guess I'm taking a cab home with him. "
" He's a good boy. He's always been such a good boy. Lazy. But good. "
" He wasn't always lazy. "
" No, that's true. But he is now. Laziest kid I ever saw- but good. "
Cora changed the subject. " How are you feeling? Are you in any pain? "
" No, I don't suppose I am. They gave me something when I got here, and it did the trick. I was just mostly sore, anyway. It's not pain, really. Discomfort is the better word. How are you? How have... things been? " His voice faltered.
" Ernest I suppose you know they've been pretty strange. And awful. We thought- "
" I didn't! I mean Cora, " his voice trembling and Cora had the urge to tell him to stop talking, stop until he could be Ernest, " imagine you are just living your life, going about your business in your own kitchen, cooking some of the best bacon in the country and thinking about how the next day, your going to call your oldest son, because he's supposed to help you replace the screens. And you're fine! You are fine with life, and the sun is shining in the beautiful way it does right after its rained, there's some kid yelling outside the house but it's in that insane way kids yell when they're playing and they sound like their being killed, but really, it's the time of their life, and… I had my checkered shirt on. Cora, where's my checkered shirt? " He looked fearfully up at her. " I woke up, and I had no shirt! "
" Ernest, you've had a huge shock. I can't imagine how you feel, what you are thinking. I'm having a hard time myself. It doesn't seem real, does it? "
" It does, yes, it's real to me, it's horrible, how can this have happened? I lived the wrong life! " He raised his hands and waved them aimlessly. Cora took his hands in hers and pulled them toward her lap. Ernest's eyes had a wild, vacant look. In her fatigue and distress, it seemed to Cora that shadows were randomly appearing and disappearing over Ernest's skin, like fast moving film of dark water.
" Ernest, it's OK. You're all right now. I don't know what happened but the doctors will understand more after they do some tests. It's OK. " At a loss, she kissed his hands, the crackle tops of his knuckles.
" How could they let this happen? An old man in a bag, it's not right, it's not right, Cora, what did I ever do to deserve begin treated like this? " Despite Cora's hands and her voice, Ernest was growing hysterical. " Why did I do it? "
" Do what, Ernest? " She began sweating profusely.
" I lived the wrong life!! " A profusion of veins on Ernest's neck, ropes.
" Who are you angry at Ernest? "
" They put me in a bag, how could they do it! " Now he was shrieking, and Cora let go of his hands, moved back from him with her arms crossed over her chest; a nurse moved past her and then another and another, and they were ushering her out of the room.
Much later, she left Rodger, asleep across two chairs, and checked on Ernest. As soon as his door opened, he turned to her. Groggily he said, " Cora. Come here. "
She again sat next to his body, wrapped and tucked in the white sanitary sheets. " Ernest are you OK? " Now it was her voice that shook.
" I am sorry. I don't remember exactly what I said, I remember shouting. I think I'm confused, Cora. " He looked to her as vulnerable as their babies had been after birth, mouths open waiting for the breast, hands opening and closing, faces turned nakedly toward you with all their humanity laid at the alter. The only time she could remember seeing him even remotely like this was at the births of their babies, and in the first years of their relationship, at orgasm. His face, normally a constant reflection of his spirit- dogged, cheerful, unpurturbed by the world- would collapse and then come forward, like a star dying, or being born. She would open her eyes from the dark physical magic to catch a glimpse of this, her power over him, to crack him open. Now she wished that every crack would seal, his eyes filling with the old insouciance, his hand not tender, but friendly, slapping her ass.
" Anyone would be. " That was all she could manage.
" I understand I had a heart attack. You called an ambulance. " Cora nodded, remembering crying, the phone slipping off her face as she begged the operator to hurry. " They did what they could, but it wouldn't take, and I died. They told you I died? " Cora nodded again. " And then. The next part. " Ernest's mouth was so pale, pale like the bottom of a crater lake, the underside of a shell worn away by water for hundreds of years. " I want to know how this happened, so it won't happen again. " He shuddered.
" I understand. "
" Cora… " he trailed off, looking at her. Finally his gaze focused. " You are so beautiful. "
She flushed with anger. " What? What are you talking about? "
" My Cora. So beautiful, so strong, my love. " He smiled at her and there, like a lightening charge, was he back in his eyes.
Cora found herself furious, trembling. " What is wrong with you? "
" Why are you angry? "
" Because, because! Because what does this have to do with anything! You never focus. You can't even focus on your own goddamn death! "
" Cora, I think I did you a disservice. I think- we better lower our voices, I don't want the ox nurse coming in her and shooing you out. No, I have done you a disservice, a great disservice, and I want to tell you I'm sorry. "
Cora felt her hand flinch- I actually want to slap him! My husband who just died! she thought, astonished. " That's enough, Ernest. "
" All the years we have been married, all the time we have had together, and I knew that you wanted, more than anything, one thing from me. And I resented you for it, sometimes I resented the hell out of you, I thought of leaving. " Cora's trembling subsided. I remember, she thought. I know when. " I felt like I loved you easily, and you wouldn't do the same for me. I felt loved less. Once I read, or heard, I don't remember, that there is always someone who loves more, in a marriage. And that hurt. Damn that hurt, reading that, because I knew it was me who was loved less! " Cora felt her mouth actually part in astonishment. Would this day ever end, would she ever lay down in a bed and fall asleep and wake for breakfast again? Impossible. " It was clear to me, you loved me less. So out of anger, and hurt, and pride, I refused, purposefully refused- " were his eyes filling with tears? Cora saw they were. " to give you the thing you most wanted from me. And I know that I had the entire thing backward! I realized I was the one who loved you less! It was a test I failed, all along, I'm such a bastard, so prideful thinking my heart loved more when the entire time I went on holding back love from my wife, to prove a point! I wasted my entire damn life to prove a point that wasn't even right. Wasting love, that's the greatest sin there is! You loved more, Cora. You loved more, and you always did. "
Cora sat with her hands now clasped inside Ernest's old, feeble hands. Her cell phone rang--