About the Feature
[Listen to the author read this story]
The guest book sits on a pedestal in the funeral home lobby. Dean signs it, then flips the pages backward to see who else has come before him. He recognizes no one. He has an urge to scribble out his own name and escape, but an usher in a black suit materializes, handing him a prayer card, thanking him for coming, and directing him toward the viewing room.
Dean follows on the spongy carpet, but stops to linger at a photo collage set up on an easel by the doorway. There in the center of the foam display board is an eight-by-ten photograph of Mrs. Zarembinski from her days as a fourth-grade teacher at Dry River Elementary School. Dean recognizes the mottled blue background that the photographer taped up every year on the back wall of the cafeteria for portrait day; briefly Dean thinks of the cheap plastic combs, pea green, given as rewards after the kids bared their teeth and smiled into the blinding flash of white light. Why after? Why didn’t they get the combs first, when they could use them?
Dean, now forty-three, stares into Mrs. Zarembinski’s eyes, narrow slits above her fat, fake-smiling cheeks spotted with rouge. The shade of Mrs. Zarembinski’s stiff red curls, Dean decided as a boy, was what you’d get mixing orange and cherry cough syrup in a rusty bucket. When she used to lean over him and say, “Look at me when I’m speaking, Dean,” he could see where the dye soaked into her white scalp. When she used to walk up to the chalkboard, Dean remembers, she’d puff through her nose with each step, her double chin jiggling, and you could hear something squeaking underneath her clothes.
Christ, how Dean had hated Mrs. Zarembinski!
He stares hard at the photo collage, picking out a few grainy snapshots of the old neighborhood in Dry River. The development was brand new in 1972 when Dean’s stepfather moved them from Chicago to Arizona. The Zarembinskis lived two doors down. Mr. Zarembinski was old and let his yard fill with brown weeds and spoke in a heavy accent that Dean’s stepdad said was Polack. The Zarembinskis’ only son was George, blubbery like his mother, smelling like powdered sugar and sweat, quick to cry and quit during neighborhood games, then bribing his way back in with his mother’s pastries.
Dean’s own mother couldn’t wait to get out of Dry River. She thought the houses were cheap, the whole subdivision beneath her. She set her sights on Scottsdale, and within three years, by the time Dean was eleven, they were gone. He never went back to Dry River, and he hasn’t seen the Zarembinskis or anyone else from the old neighborhood for thirty years. He lives in Chandler now, less than an hour away, but there’s never any reason for him to drive that way.
Why is he here, about to look at Mrs. Zarembinski’s dead body?
He isn’t sure. Sunday morning, sitting at the kitchen table in his boxers after Karen took Cole to Sunday school, flipping through the Phoenix Gazette, the name Zarembinski jumped out at him from the obits. There was no picture, but Dean squinted and read. Retired teacher. Devoted chairwoman of St. Theresa’s holiday craft fair. Survived by her loving son, George Artur Zarembinski. Georgie the crybaby! He’d never known Mrs. Zarembinski’s first name, and he said it out loud: Paulette.
The strange thing was, he had been talking about her only a few days earlier. His son Cole had come home upset about his new “behavior modification” plan at school. Something to do with colored cards on his desk that changed from green, to yellow, to red, to blue, depending on how many times Cole blurted out inappropriate comments or stood on his chair or pestered the kids sitting next to him. A blue card meant he had to stay inside at recess and pound clay instead of going outside to the playground. “You think you have it tough?” Dean said to him. “My teacher made me stand in the garbage can.”
Dean raised his eyebrows and Cole giggled. “For real?”
“Yeah, for real! Mrs. Zarembinski!” Dean made a face, pretending to gag. “Right in the front of the whole class, and not just for a minute or two! For the whole day.”
Cole threw his head back and laughed, and Dean laughed too. Dean remembered Mrs. Zarembinski smiling at him with her wide, red mouth as she held the edges of the metal waste-paper can in the front of the classroom as Dean stepped down on used Kleenex and waxy milk cartons and Hostess wrappers from snack time. “Since you seem to have trouble understanding where garbage goes, Dean, let me make it easier for you.” When a few of the kids started giggling, Dean snickered, too. It wasn’t really such a bad punishment; it got boring, mostly, and his legs ached from standing.
Cole’s laughter suddenly quieted, and his forehead knotted as he stared at Dean. “You must have been really bad.”
The fearful tone in his son’s voice made Dean immediately sad. “No! No, I wasn’t! We got in trouble for all kinds of things back then, like having paper scraps under our desks. See what I mean? You’re lucky! You don’t have Mrs. Zarembinski.”
And then, not even a week later, there was her name in the newspaper, right on the table in front of him.
One of the photos in the collage shows the Zarembinski house with half a dozen costumed kids in front. That must be Dean himself—that blurry figure dressed in white hospital scrubs. He was the only one that Halloween who wanted to be Marcus Welby, md. The show was in reruns by then, but it was still Dean’s favorite. He wanted to be a doctor. Even as a boy, he wanted to have Dr. Welby’s white hair and white jacket and his kind, knowledgeable eyes. That’s what’s great, Dean thinks, about being a kid. Even if you’re a lousy student who doesn’t understand science, you can still see yourself as a doctor someday.
Instead of a doctor, Dean is a sales and account manager for a pool maintenance company in Phoenix, which isn’t so bad, really, especially since they’ve signed eight new hotels in the last year, including the Copperwynd Resort, which Dean landed completely on his own. It’s not great, but isn’t bad, better at least than the future that Mrs. Zarembinski predicted for him based on his fourth-grade handwriting. You could tell a shifty boy, she used to say, a lazy boy, too, by that weak and wobbly cursive.
Stepping away from the photo board, Dean takes a deep breath, aware of his heart beating heavily, like the girls’ long jump rope thwacking the cement breezeway at Dry River Elementary during recess—the urgent, rhythmic sound of it. The girls all in a line waiting their turn to run in. Dean used to hide behind the water fountain and catcall, trying to make them miss a beat and stumble.
He meanders to a water fountain on the other side of the lobby. He looks at his watch: 4:47. No rush. He promised his wife he’d be home by 7:00, so he has plenty of time to kill.
This morning he’d dressed in his dark sports jacket. Filling his coffee mug in the kitchen, he mentioned to Karen that he’d be late coming home from work.
“No.” Karen, bent over the open dishwasher, swiveled her head. “It’s Tuesday.” She was wearing her navy fleece robe, the one that zippered to her chin; her wet hair was tightly wrapped in a small towel. Her round face, blotchy from the shower, looked homely and exposed like a nun’s. “It’s Tuesday. It’s Family Pizza Night.”
“Oh Jesus.” Dean lifted his travel mug and sipped, feeling his lips burn on the plastic rim. “We can have pizza anytime. Like tomorrow.”
She repositioned a dirty cereal bowl between the rungs, then straightened her spine. “Dean.” Her lips stretched, baring her polished teeth. “The whole point is to do it the same way every week. That’s what Dr. Levin said. That’s what she emphasized. If it’s not the same every week, it’s not a family ritual.”
Her voice was the urgent whisper she used when she didn’t want Cole to hear. At the moment, Cole was in the family room eating his breakfast in front of morning cartoons. It was just one of the never-ending bargains they’d struck with him: if he switched from Frosted Flakes to plain Cheerios, he could turn on Transformers.
“Consistency. That’s the whole point,” she hissed. “Follow-through. We can’t expect him to have it if we don’t.”
Dean watched as she filled the dishwasher with detergent, letting the blue granules overflow the compartment.
“For your information,” he said, filling his voice with importance, “I’m going to a wake.”
Dean plucked the obituary that he’d clipped from Sunday’s paper. He waved it like a little flag. “An old friend of the family.”
Karen blinked. “Your family?”
“You were the one who told Dr. Levin last time that I should think more about other people’s lives besides my own.”
Karen shut the dishwasher cover with a thump, pulled the lever, pushed the NORMAL ON button.
Okay then, Karen said. Fine. She would pick up the pizzas herself after Cole’s tai chi lesson, and they would eat at seven instead of six. That would give him plenty of time to stop at the funeral home and pay his respects and still not ruin their new family tradition.
Dean poked his head in the family room to say goodbye to Cole, who was lying upside-down on the sofa, his bare feet dangling over the armrest and his head hanging off the cushion. The top of his Dark Knight pajamas was rolled up to his armpits, and Dean—calling, “I’m gonna get you!”—strode into the room, ready to tickle his son’s skinny belly.
“DON’T!” Cole yelled. “I’m watching my SHOW!”
Dean stopped short, dropping his hands. “Okay, buddy. Right. Hey, look.” He nodded at the cartoon-filled screen. “Here come the Decepticons.”
When he enters the viewing room, he sees George Zarembinski. Dean would have never recognized him if he hadn’t been standing right next to his mother’s casket. George has become a balding, heavy-hipped man in a rumpled suit and clear-rimmed glasses, his complexion milky yellow like congealed banana pudding. The kind, Dean thinks, they used to serve for dessert every Wednesday at Dry River Elementary.
Dean lifts his hand and nods. George nods back, but Dean can’t tell if George recognizes him. Probably not. They haven’t seen each other for more than thirty years. George has the same fat neck that his mother had, and it bulges on one side as George tilts his head, staring at him. Dean’s stomach twists.
There are about a dozen people in line, and a couple dozen more scattered in the rows of folding chairs, mostly women, probably from Mrs. Zarembinski’s church.
If Dean died, he wonders, who would come to a wake for him? Karen is the one with all the people. The church people, the pta people, her knitting club and diet club and book club people, her real estate colleagues, and her many relatives. If Dean died tomorrow, all of Karen’s people would show up. The place would be packed. But Dean’s people would amount to, what? Maybe a handful.
As Dean waits his turn in line, someone taps his shoulder from behind. “Dean? Is that you, Dean?”
He spins around. A blonde woman is smiling at him. She’s sort of attractive. Probably around Dean’s age, he guesses. She has that young-looking kind of hair, all thick and wavy and wild, but she’s got wrinkles around her eyes like Karen. She’s wearing a green dress, low cut and sleeveless, that shows her biceps. She probably lifts weights at a gym. She’s probably single; he would bet on it.
She places her hand on her chest “Melissa Huish.” She lifts her eyebrows, and they disappear under her curly bangs. “Remember?”
She doesn’t look familiar, but after she describes to Dean which house was hers in Dry River, he recalls her family, one of the Mormon families on the block with lots of kids. The Huish girls, Dean remembers, all had long braids down their backs and homemade dresses from the same material.
“That was you? You were one of the Huish girls?”
She gives a dry laugh. She says, “I’ve changed, obviously.”
Prompted, Dean says, “You look fantastic, Melissa. Jeez. You look awesome.”
“Lissa. That’s what I go by now.” She brings one finger to her lips, still gazing into his eyes. “We were in the same class for three years in a row,” she tells him. “But I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. I was so shy! But you. You were such a card!”
Dean used to be jealous of the Mormon kids. The way they always stuck together. He remembers hearing that if one of the Mormon dads ever lost his job, all the other families in the parish would pay his bills till he got back on his feet. He asked his mom once, “What about us? Who would help us out?” She said, “That’s a good question, Deanie! A damn good question!”
Lissa says, “Right when I saw you, I knew it was you, Dean. You have one of those faces. Just like your little boy face! It’s so funny how some people are like that. They keep the same exact face forever.”
The old couple behind him clear their throats, a signal for Dean to move forward, and he gestures for Lissa to join him in line.
“Oh, that’s okay. I’ve already paid my respects. I’ll wait with you, though.” She steps along beside him. “I had no idea that you were still friends with Georgie.”
Dean says, “Well, it’s been a while, actually.”
They both look toward George, whose eyes are moving quizzically between Dean and Lissa. George takes off his glasses, unsmiling, wipes them with his tie, and repositions them on his custard face.
“It’s so sad,” Lissa murmurs, lowering her voice. “All alone in the house now.”
“The house in Dry River?”
Lissa nods. Dean notices the blue tint of her mascara, a smell like ginger and cigarettes coming from her hair. She says, “It’s been just the two of them, Georgie and his mom, since Mr. Z. died, let’s see, at least ten years ago now.” She lifts one hand, touching the string of beads on her clavicle, smiling wistfully at Dean. “I think he’s in shock. Complete shock. He’s never lived alone before.”
She keeps looking right into his eyes; Dean glances away, toward the big white casket that’s only a few more paces ahead of them now, and when he looks back, her eyeballs are right there waiting for his, and it’s weird, Dean thinks, because those Huish girls always used to be so demure. That’s how he remembers them, with their straight stubby lashes shielding their downcast eyes. There were four of them, and Dean remembers how they would hold hands walking home, straight across in a line, two on the sidewalk and two in the cement gutter, and how they never wore sandals or flip-flops even on the hottest days, always ugly flat shoes with laces. And Dean remembers now how he and a group of boys trailed them all the way home from school one day, throwing pebbles from the gravel lawns at their ankle socks, and the Huish girls never turned their heads to look back at them, just kept marching forward in their lopsided line.
“Well, maybe it’s for the best,” Dean says. “Maybe this will be a whole new life for him.”
Lissa places her hand on Dean’s forearm. “That’s exactly what I said to George. Those were my words exactly.”
She squeezes, and Dean can feel the hard tips of her fingernails through his blazer.
“Hey,” she says. “Do you remember when she made you kill those bugs?” She lifts on her tiptoes and whispers near his ear. “I just thought of it! How she made you mush them up in your bare hand! Remember?” Lissa makes a horrified face, wrinkling up her nose.
Remember? How could he not remember? “They were caterpillars,” Dean says.
Once a year, sometime in the late spring, the large tree in the far corner of the school’s scrubby playground became covered with fuzzy, orangey-yellow caterpillars. One day they would just suddenly be there, crawling the pathways of bark and clinging to the leaves. And yes, there was the thrill of chasing the girls, trying to drop one down the backs of their shirts. But Dean liked the caterpillars, too. His mother wouldn’t let him have a dog or cat or even an aquarium, which she said would smell funny. He figured he could make his own terrarium, though, with dirt and leaves. His mother wouldn’t even have to know about it. He took his Bionic Man lunchbox out to the tree during afternoon recess one day and picked out seven or eight caterpillars for his pets, giving them names (Spiky, Marcus, Lee Majors, Wiggles . . .) as he settled them in one by one.
Dean looks toward the coffin, where a kneeling old lady is crossing herself and mumbling.
“I remember it like yesterday!” Lissa’s lips are twitching, and she brings one hand to her mouth, stifling a laugh. “We were all lined up in the breezeway outside the classroom door at the end of recess, ready to go in. Remember? And Mrs. Zarembinski made you step out of the line. She wanted to know what you were doing with your lunchbox out at recess because recess wasn’t lunchtime.”
“She made me open it up with everyone watching.”
He remembers picking out the caterpillars as Mrs. Zarembinski instructed and holding them in his cupped palm. “Stay right where you are! Everyone!” Squeak, squeak squeak, as she lumbered to the breezeway dumpster and emptied the twigs and leaves from Dean’s lunchbox. The caterpillars felt scratchy, tickling his hand, and a wetness seemed to spread in the crevice of his palm. He wondered if caterpillars peed, and if they did, if one of them had just peed on him. If it did, Dean didn’t really mind. Squeak, squeak, squeak. They all watched Mrs. Zarembinski return and glower at Dean, who stood with his lifted hand full of caterpillars. “Make a fist. Squeeze it tight.”
“One of the girls started to cry,” Dean says, and he snorts through his nose, feeling a laugh coming on, trying to stop it. “When the caterpillars squished between my fingers. Was that you?”
“I don’t think so. Was it? I remember you, though! God, your face! I really thought you were going to fling the whole fistful right on Mrs. Zarembinski.”
Dean wanted to tell Mrs. Zarembinski he would put the caterpillars back on the tree. He would stay after school and get suspended or anything she wanted. He wanted to say it, but he could tell if he tried to talk he would start to cry in front of the whole class. So he squeezed. “Tighter!”
Now Dean is laughing, and Lissa is, too, even though nothing is funny, not to Dean anyway, but he can’t stop. He and Lissa look at each other, both strangling with silent and painful guffaws clenched in their throats. It’s Dean’s turn to go look in the casket and then shake George’s hand, but how can he like this, laughing? He widens his eyes at Lissa and makes a circling motion with his hand by his head that she seems to understand.
“Come on,” she says, and grabs his arm.
Lissa leads him through the foyer and down a short hallway, to a door with a small gold sign that says “Family Privacy.” They step in; Lissa shuts the door behind them.
Two shaded lamps stand at either end of a low bureau against one wall. A large sofa and two matching chairs face a wooden coffee table with a box of tissues and a bowl of mints.
Lissa kicks off her high-heel sandals and pads across the carpeted floor and flings herself onto the sofa, letting out a muffled laugh while pointing at him.
Dean stands silently. Now that they’re in this room, he doesn’t need to laugh anymore. The laugh has disappeared inside of him.
“Oh my God!” Lissa tosses her curly head. “I remember it took so long for you to come back from the boys’ room when she sent you to wash your hands. I remember thinking, what if he just left! What if he just took off!”
In the boys’ room Dean had held his messy hand under the weak stream of water from the faucet and didn’t look down at it till he thought all the slimy remains had been carried down the drain, but when he did look, there was a smear of orangey blue with a spike of fuzz still clinging to the sink’s bowl, and he had to wipe it with a paper towel so no one would see it later.
Dean clears his throat. “So you’ve stayed in touch all these years. With George.”
“Well . . . ” Lissa holds up one hand and takes a breath. Her cheeks are still flushed from their laughing jag by the coffin. She says, “When I was getting divorced I had to move back in with my parents for a few months. They’re still there, of course, in Dry River. That was, what, seven years ago. I had to sell my car, so I was stuck there, and I’d take walks around the neighborhood just to get out and move, you know, so I wouldn’t lose my mind. So one day I’m walking past the Zarembinskis’ and there’s poor George standing by their mailbox. The mailbox door was open with a newspaper and stuff sticking out, but George didn’t move, he just stood there. For at least two blocks I could see him, and he didn’t move, and I got closer, and something about his humpy shoulders and his arms just dangling, I just . . . I got this strong feeling that even though George didn’t know it, he was waiting there so I would help him.”
“What did you do?”
“I said hi. I waited while he brought in the mail, and he drove us to Dunkin’ Donuts. We started doing that practically every evening. He’d tell me all about his job at the Water Resources Department. It’s not a bad job, really. He works on groundwater codes. He could afford his own house, but he didn’t want to leave his mother alone.”
“Did you help him?”
“I think so. I really do. I think our friendship has made a difference to his, you know, his life. I got my condo after the divorce was all settled, but I kept coming by, every couple of weeks or so.” Lissa leans back on the sofa, smirking at Dean. “Mrs. Z. would get so happy when I came over. She liked to pretend I was Georgie’s girlfriend. She’d say, ‘Oh, you Huish kids! Always such good manners, you Huish kids!’”
“I bet she never made Huish kids stand in the trash can.”
“Not the Huish kids!”
Lissa regards him , her lips parted, her fingers weaving into her tangled mass of blonde hair. She says, “You’re not even friends with George.”
He feels his neck get hot. “I used to be,” he lies. “When we were kids.”
“It’s okay, Dean.”
He steps to the bureau and takes a glass, but he doesn’t pour himself any water. He stares at the sparkling design of floating ice cubes, waiting for one to move. “I told you. I saw the obituary. I saw her name in the Gazette.”
“And it struck a chord. You felt something.”
“I guess.” Dean turns back and sees that Lissa’s eyes have brightened. She’s sitting cross-legged on the sofa now, her bare feet tucked beneath her ankles, and when she adjusts the skirt of her dress, pulling up its green folds by her hips with a quick yank, letting it billow like a tablecloth, Dean glimpses a shiny flash of her panties. He says, “I probably shouldn’t be here.”
“You want to know what I think?” Lissa’s voice has taken an assertive edge, like someone wanting to start an argument. “I think you felt Mrs. Z.’s energy getting ready to transmigrate.”
“What does that mean?”
“Reincarnation.” She smoothes her dress, running both palms down the length of her thighs. “I believe in it. I really do.” Lifting her chin, she gives Dean a hard smile, as if challenging him to contradict her.
Dean shrugs. “I don’t not believe in it.”
“People get gut feelings all the time, you know? These feelings that seem to be coming from out of the blue. Like meeting someone you’ve never met before but you know them, or getting an indescribable urge to travel to Barcelona or suddenly being afraid of elevators or something. And most people think, wow, that’s a crazy random feeling, but it’s not crazy. It’s a past life memory.”
Dean says, “Mormons believe in heaven, though. Right? Don’t all you guys get to go to your own special heaven together?”
“Oh, tell me about it!” Lissa rolls her eyes. “That’s why my parents disowned me, you know. Because when I divorced Bradley, according to them, I was turning my back on our righteous degree of glory in the afterlife. For all eternity.”
“That’s a pretty tough package to turn down.”
“Exactly! That’s exactly how they think of it! They’re all going to bliss out in the clouds together in white robes, and that’s perfectly believable. But my interest in Hinduism, in alternate spirituality, well, that’s just weird. According to them.”
“They disowned you?”
“That’s right!” Lissa barks a quick, sharp laugh. “Sometimes when I visit George, I drive by their house and I’ll see them through the window or out in the yard, and I’ll just sit there with the engine idling, and I know they see me, but they don’t even wave.”
Dean leans on the bureau. He says, “So let’s say you walk out on a balcony, nothing unusual, but all of a sudden you’re afraid to look down. That means maybe in another life you fell off a mountain or something. And you’re just now remembering it. Is that right?”
She lifts one eyebrow. “Well, the connection might be more symbolic than that, but yeah. I think so. I think we get messages from our past lives all the time. You just have to pay attention to them. Not dismiss them.”
“So you think I got a message from Mrs. Zarembinski?”
“She’s not from a past life, though. She’s from this life.”
“Except it’s more than that. If you want to know what I think.” Lissa flashes that harsh smile again. “Don’t you notice how some people get drawn into the same situations, again and again? Oh, the details change, the faces change, but it’s the same energy waves, over and over. Until they finally get out of the undertow and breathe!”
Dean thinks of his mother; she lives in Florida now at a posh “senior living” complex. She’s filed for divorce from her fourth husband because she’s met someone new, a retired pilot who taught her how to work the Wii controller in the community game room. “I know what you’re going to say, Deanie,” she intoned in her raspy voice when they’d talked on the phone last Sunday, “but it’s different this time. So don’t judge me!”
Lissa stretches out sideways on the sofa, her head propped on one hand. Like Cleopatra, Dean thinks. She says, “Most people ignore the messages. So they can’t make progress, emotionally, in this life or the next one.”
“I was thinking about Mrs. Zarembinski,” Dean confides. “Before I even saw her name in the paper.”
“That was her energy. You felt it.” Lissa waves her free hand toward the ceiling in a flowing, circular motion.
“I’ve always thought,” Dean says, “that I should have told her no. When she told me to squeeze my fist. I should have refused.”
“Well, you were just a kid.”
“I’ve always thought that if I’d told her no, I wouldn’t do it, that it would have made a big difference to me. To my life.”
Has Dean always thought this? No. He doesn’t remember ever thinking this before. Yet now that he’s said it, it seems completely true.
“But now you’re ready.” Lissa sits up, swinging her feet to the floor. “To confront and release.” She pats the sofa cushion next to her with her flattened palm.
Dean sits down, but as soon as he does he feels embarrassed. He pulls on his tie and pretends to laugh. “Maybe Mrs. Zarembinski’s getting reincarnated as a caterpillar.”
“Don’t laugh!” Lissa leans toward him, the neckline of her green dress dropping forward; the edge of her bra is tan, a shade or two darker than her skin. She laughs. “Seriously. It’s entirely possible.”
“And I could come back as an armadillo or something. And eat her.”
“Better watch it.” Lissa bats the back of her hand against his shoulder. “That’s a regressive desire. Revenge. It’ll hold you back from a higher embodiment.”
“What about you? What did you used to be?”
She draws her lips into a pout. “I don’t think I want to tell you. You’re laughing at me.”
Dean rests his arm on the back of the couch. “You laughed at me first.”
They’re facing each other, a couple feet apart. Dean can’t decide. He glances down at his watch. Almost 6:00. If he leaves in five minutes, he’ll make it home on time.
Lissa presses her hand on his knee. “One time at lunch you told the whole table that my sisters and I slept in the same bed. Remember that?”
“That wasn’t me.”
She shakes her finger at him, smiling. “You know what? We should get a drink. A quick one. I’m pretty sure there’s a Chili’s just around the block. ”
Dean nods. “Sounds great. Except, I don’t have time. I gotta get going.”
Lissa’s hand lifts, fiddles with her necklace of small wooden beads. “Dinner plans?”
“Family Pizza Night.” Karen is probably calling Pizza Hut right now, Dean thinks, from the lobby of the tai chi studio.
Lissa’s lips press together and slide sideways. “How many kids do you have?”
“One. Cole. He’s six. Karen wants another one.”
Lissa stands and strolls across the room, swinging her arms. Trying too hard, Dean thinks, to look casual. She kneels by the bureau and opens its cabinet doors, searching for something inside. “Damn,” she says. “No hidden booze.” She looks at him over her shoulder, crouching there like a cat. “You know what? There’s some gift baskets for George in the lobby. Maybe there’s wine in one of them. I was going to load them in my car and drive them over to his house after the wake’s done anyway.” She jumps up. “Just wait here! I’ll go take a look.”
When she’s gone, Dean props his feet on the coffee table. A heaviness fills his chest. He should leave right now, just bolt through the door and get going. He doesn’t know why he said that, about Karen wanting another baby. It’s between the two of them. Well, the three of them. Him and Karen and Dr. Levin. They all agreed that April—only three days away now—would be Dean’s deadline. To decide. What’s fair is fair, Karen said. Because she knows what she wants. She wants a family, with at least two children. She wants a family life, with summer vacations and Sunday potlucks at church and memories of everyone chipping in and pulling together when something goes wrong. And she wants to be married to the kind of man who wants those same things, too, and if that’s Dean, then fine—she’s willing to roll up her sleeves and work on their marriage, because she’s never been a quitter and she believes they can make it. But if it’s not Dean, if he just doesn’t want the same things she wants, then, well, she’ll understand. You can’t change what you can’t change. But she wants to know now—it’s only fair—while she’s still young enough to make that life happen with somebody else.
He remembers the way Karen sat in Dr. Levin’s office during their noontime meeting with her ankles crossed and her hands folded on one knee. She’d been showing houses for her real estate job, and it startled Dean to be reminded of how Karen actually looked during the day. Usually when Dean left in the morning, Karen was still in her bathrobe getting Cole ready for school, and by the time he got home in the early evening she was already in her sweatpants or aerobics clothes, her hair twisted back in a ponytail. It made him sad, for some reason, to see her put together in her blue dress with her matching shoes and her hair curled neatly around her shoulders and her tan makeup that covered the acne scars on her cheeks. She looked ordinary and nice. She looked like someone you would want to buy a house from.
“Either you’re in,” Karen had said, “or you’re out.”
Dean pushes off his shoes and massages his arches against the edge of the coffee table. If Lissa isn’t back in two minutes, he tells himself, he’ll leave. He’ll go home and eat pizza. He sinks down on the sofa and closes his eyes. He did have a friend in Dry River, he remembers. It wasn’t George, but it was a friend. His name was Sanjit. His father was a visiting professor at Arizona State. They were from Delhi, and Dean thought it was deli, like a sandwich shop, but Sanjit corrected him politely. Sanjit was always polite, even when Dean asked him what made his house smell funny. The wall-to-wall carpeting in Sanjit’s house was always moist from the humidifiers his mother kept at full blast, and Dean and Sanjit would smooth it with their hands into curved roadways for their marbles and Hot Wheels.
After Dean’s family moved to Scottsdale, an invitation came in the mail—forwarded by the post office—for Sanjit’s birthday party, but neither Dean’s mother nor stepfather wanted to drive him to Dry River on a Saturday afternoon. His mother said, “What’s the point? You’re not going to be friends with those kids anymore when school starts.” Dean had thrown one of his typical fits, but in the middle of it, he remembers, a different kind of anger—solemn and deep—took hold inside of him. He stood still for once and closed his mouth, which made his mother look at him. He told her quietly, “My real father wants to drive me to the party.” His mother was wearing her bikini—their new house in Scottsdale had a pool—and she reached for one of the oversized towels slung over the kitchen bar stool and wrapped it around her torso, as if Dean’s real father had suddenly materialized in the room, leering at her. “Oh, that’s a good one, Deanie! We don’t know where on earth he’s been living for the last seven years, but of course we know he wants you to go to an Indian party! Tell me another one!” Dean stared at her gravely. He felt it. He felt his father talking to him inside, not in words exactly, but in some kind of code, like a liquid marble, like an eyeball inside his brain, rolling down through his chest and stomach and back up into his head again, telling him, Sorry, kid. Sorry you have to live with these jerks, but it won’t be forever.
When the door squeaks, Dean opens his eyes. Lissa waltzes toward him in slow motion, holding a bottle of wine high in one hand and a corkscrew in the other. “Look! What! I! Found!” She sings in a whispered falsetto, and Dean thinks, she’s fun. She’s a fun girl. He’s actually in the mood for some fun, he realizes. He didn’t think he was, but he is.
Dean watches her tan bicep harden with each twist of the corkscrew. He watches her retrieve the glasses from the bureau and lets her pour him a large tumbler of white wine. When they clink glasses, he says, “Here’s to my past life.”
She wrinkles her nose, which is cute, Dean thinks. She says, “Who were you?”
“An Indian. From India. I think I worked on a ferryboat.”
“That was Siddhartha.”
They both take several long swallows of wine. She laughs, and they both put their feet on the coffee table, his in socks, hers bare with painted toenails.
Dean says, “So who were you?”
Her toes wiggle, and Dean puts his foot on her foot. “You didn’t tell me,” he says. “You were going to tell me.”
“Sure you want to know? It’s kind of a turnoff.”
“What, were you some kind of animal?”
Her toes press up on the ball of his foot. She twists her head, grinning at him, and from this angle, he can see the tinge of nicotine on her incisors; where her hair falls to one side, the roots are gray behind her ear. He’d forgotten how big her ears were, how they used to stick out from her tightly pigtailed head when she was a kid. He is about to reach up and touch the meaty lobe, but the door opens with a quick whoosh, and it’s George, his lumpy body filling the frame. He says to Lissa, “There you are. I was looking for you.”
His whine sounds to Dean’s ears exactly the same as it used to during their neighborhood games. It’s not fair! I tagged you! You have to freeze! His blue eyes, bloodshot veins magnified behind his thick lenses, scan Dean with a puzzled glance, then linger on the bottle of white zinfandel before returning to Lissa with indignant reproof. “What are you doing in here?”
Lissa lifts her arm like a game show hostess, with Dean on display. “Guess who came!” She rests her hand on Dean’s shoulder; her fingers press on the blade. “It’s someone from the past.”
“I’m not going to guess.” George crosses his arms over his stomach, standing just the way he did when he was a kid, and Dean remembers taunting him to lift up his shirt and show them his belly. Dean had started a bet with the other kids about how many rolls of fat there would be.
George turns his head wearily in Dean’s direction.
“Someone from Dry River!” Lissa prods. “Look at his face. He looks just the same!”
For a moment their eyes lock, and George’s eyes harden with recognition. George remembers him; Dean can tell. But George looks away.
“My feet are swollen, Lissa. And Mrs. Graver won’t leave. She’s the only one left, and I don’t want to talk to her anymore.”
“It’s Dean,” Lissa tells him. “He used to the live in the Huertas’ house. Remember? When we were in third and fourth and fifth grade.”
George lets his arms fall by his sides. He breathes through his mouth while looking at Dean with no expression, but Dean can tell he’s pretending. “Dean who?”
Lissa’s hand slides off his back. “Dean who?” she repeats, smiling at him.
“Oh, that’s right,” Lissa says. “The Hopkinses.”
For a moment it is quiet, and the quiet feels crushing and painful to Dean, as if the air in the privacy room has turned to a transparent, thick gel filled with invisible needles. He says, “Actually, my last name used to be Dunney. When I was born. Dean Dunney. My dad left, and when my mom remarried, my stepdad adopted me. I liked him okay. He left things up to my mom, mostly. So my last name was changed to his name. So that’s my official, legal name. Dean Hopkins. When my mother and my first stepdad got divorced, I asked about it, too. I remember asking my mom when she changed her name back to her maiden name if my name was changing again, too, but she said no, I was still Dean Hopkins, and it still doesn’t make much sense to me, to tell you the truth, to be walking around to this day with the last name of some nice enough guy I happened to live with for a few years of my childhood. But anyway—”
Dean cuts himself off. Normally, he’s pretty good at talking to people. It’s a big part of his job as account manager at Sparkle Pools. Normally he never sits like a mute when he should be introducing himself only to blurt out inappropriate personal information for absolutely no reason. He looks at his hands, wiggling his fingers, forcing the air to turn back into normal air again. He decides to pretend that the last few minutes never happened.
He stands, squares his shoulders, and puts a normal look of sympathy on his face, extending his hand in George’s direction. “I’m sorry for your loss. Very sorry.”
George shuffles forward and shakes Dean’s hand without enthusiasm.
Lissa says, “Your mom was his teacher. She made a big impact on Dean. Right, Dean?”
“I saw her obituary,” Dean says, looking sideways at Lissa, who takes a swig of wine and runs her tongue along her top lip.
George steps to the coffee table, grabs a handful of mints and plops down in one of the armchairs. Dean sits back on the sofa, leaving a wide distance between himself and Lissa.
George props his feet on the table. “What a day. What a truly grueling day.” He unwraps three mints and tilts his head toward Lissa. “Four separate ladies from Mom’s prayer circle told me that when I finally meet the right girl, my mother will be blessing me from heaven on my wedding day. Apparently they’ve all been praying for me to get married for years now, and they’ve never even met me. Jesus, I’m ready to go home.”
“It’s a tough time for you. Very tough.” Dean makes his voice as compassionate as he can.
George squints at him, sucking. He pushes the mints to one cheek, holding them like a squirrel. “You know, Mom never liked teaching. It didn’t suit her. She retired as soon as she qualified for pension. But I suppose she’d be glad to know she helped someone.”
“Dean was drawn here today.” Lissa’s cheeks are flushed, and she pours herself more wine. “He felt your mom’s essence preparing for its next journey. He’s here for a reason, George.”
George waves one of his soft hands in the air. “Oh, here we go!”
“Just listen, George! The karmic release is in process. Dean felt the energy stream.”
“Is that what Dean told you, Lissa? Because that sounds remarkably like something you would say.”
“George is a skeptic,” she says to Dean.
“According to Lissa, I used to be the orphan of a coal miner,” says George. “In one of my past lives. That’s why I have an abandonment complex, according to Lissa. Because I waited at the mouth of the mine for my father for three days but he never came out. How can she tell? Because I didn’t want to go with her to see the stalagmites inside Kartchner Caverns.”
“Don’t listen to him, Dean. There’s so much more to it.”
Dean smiles at George. “What did Lissa used to be?”
“Oh, let me see. I like the Mongol warrior. That’s probably my personal favorite. Now she has to make up for the bludgeoning and skewering of her past by befriending poor slobs like me.”
Lissa throws a sofa cushion at George’s head. “Stop it. Or I’ll leave you and never come back.” She jumps up and gets another glass from bureau, fills it with what’s left of the wine and serves it to George.
Dean wants to take her to Chili’s. He should have said yes in the first place. He sneaks a look at his watch: 6:39. He says, “What about me? I’m good for some karma points, aren’t I? I’m pathetic enough.” He raises his eyebrows at Lissa, trying to get the momentum rolling again.
George pushes the glasses down on his nose, looking at Dean with his naked blue eyes. “I don’t really remember you very well. But going on what I do remember, you were pretty much an asshole back when we were kids. Weren’t you? I mean, excuse me for saying so. My mother just died so I figure everyone has to excuse me today.”
“Yeah, I was,” says Dean.
At home, Dean thinks, Karen is probably setting the table with the plastic animal-face plates that Cole still likes, telling him to stay out of the Pizza Hut box because we’re waiting for Daddy.
“I guess I still am.”
How long will she leave the cardboard lid closed before she lets Cole go ahead and eat his pieces in front of the television? Dean will be late. Depending on what happens with Lissa, he will be somewhat late or very late, and it doesn’t matter.
He isn’t having another baby with Karen. He knows that. He just hasn’t been able to say the words, even in his own head. But now he does: I’m not having another child with Karen. It’s a deal-breaker, and he knows that, too. He picked Karen because she was so reliable and trustworthy, so down-to-earth, the opposite of his own mother, but marrying someone different, he supposes, hasn’t been enough to make himself different.
George is nodding agreeably, the round ball of his chin bobbing on his neck fat. “Well, almost seven. Thank God!”
Lissa prances around the coffee table and grabs Dean by the wrist. “Come on! We’ve got to go see her!” She swivels her head toward George. “Dean hasn’t paid his respects yet.”
“Well, hurry up then.” George sighs, pushing himself up from the chair. “Before they put her back in the cooler.”
As George lumbers toward the door, Lissa brings her face close to Dean’s. “Remember what I told you,” she whispers. “Confront. Confront and release!”
The viewing room is empty except for one of the ushers sitting in the back row. George stands at the head of the casket, Lissa at the foot. Dean takes a breath and steps up to the side.
Mrs. Zarembinski’s hair isn’t red anymore; whitish gold curls halo her waxy face. Her lipstick is light pink. And yes, she’s still a large woman, filling the casket side to side in a polyester dress printed with small, unending blue flowers, her hands folded neatly with their rosary on the mound of her stomach. Yet now, it’s like a valve somewhere in Mrs. Zarembinski’s body has been opened, letting everything relax. There is a softness to her powdered cheeks and the folds of her neck. Her legs are covered with a blanket.
Lissa says, “I wonder where she’s going next.”
George rolls his eyes, but then his doughy face settles into seriousness, the creases deepening across his forehead and the sides of his mouth. “We’ll never know,” he murmurs.
“Dean has an idea,” says Lissa. “Don’t you, Dean?”
Her eyes glint; she lifts her chin, challenging him. “Tell us, Dean. Say it.” Her gaze dips down to Mrs. Zarembinski. “Say what you came here to say.”
Dean clears his throat. Lissa and George look at him. Waiting. “I remember one time,” Dean says. “One time in Dry River . . . ” He lets his voice trail off.
Lissa flicks at one of her curls. “Go ahead, Dean.”
George has placed his hands on the rounded edge of the casket by his mother’s head. “She wasn’t an easy person, God knows,” George says. “Her life had many . . . unhappinesses. But she loved me.” He takes off his glasses and rubs his brow with his dimpled knuckle.
“This one time I remember,” Dean says. “It was the August monsoon. The really big one, not my first but my second summer in Dry River. Do you guys remember that? It didn’t rain all year and then it rained like crazy for probably twelve hours or more. It started at night and in the morning it was coming down in—what do they say?—sheets. Sheets of rain. And the sky looked like a gray ceiling that a grownup could touch with their hands but of course no one went outside until the rain stopped. And that year, remember? It rained so much, so fast, that the block flooded, not into the houses, at least not our house, but up over most of the yards to where the carports started. And when the rain stopped all of a sudden, it was the late afternoon, and the moms and kids all came out and stood at the top of their driveways looking at the flood. And I remember thinking, what’s that sound? What’s that weird sound? And it was the water flowing. I always thought our street was perfectly flat, but it must have slanted because you could see the current of the water running down toward the school. It turned the playground into a lake that lasted for days. Remember?”
“I remember that,” George says.
“And everyone was standing there by their carports, and then one of the moms walked into the water. And it was your mom. It was Mrs. Zarembinski. She was wearing one of those big summer dresses my mother called a muumuu, and I remember how she pulled it up to her knees and waded down to the bottom of the driveway and right out to the middle of the street. She put her hands in the water and sort of splashed it around. And she called something out toward your house, and then you waded out, too, George, and then Sanjit and his sister ran into the water with their foam kickboards. I went inside and blew up our plastic air mattress as fast as I could, and by the time I got back the whole street was full of kids in their swimsuits and pool toys floating down the block. And your mom was standing there in the middle with the bottom of her dress swirling in the water. She was wearing a big flowered scarf on her head over her curlers. And I remember looking up at her as I paddled by on my air mattress and she looked . . .” Dean shrugs, unable to find the right word. “She looked nice.”
Dean remembers so vividly now, although he had not known it was still in his mind, how startled he was, almost to the point of awe, in that moment as he looked up at Mrs. Zarembinski, her head bedecked in its colorful turban against the pewter sky. Because she looked so different. Her face without makeup, her arms slightly lifted and palms upturned, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, hungrily, at the sweetness of the soaked-clean air. A small, private smile played on her pale lips.
Maybe, Dean thinks, she was remembering the riverside of her childhood days in Poland. Who knows? Maybe she was swept by a memory of some other life, long ago. Of a rower, maybe, on the ancient Nile.
George says, “I remember that. I do.” His eyes drift closed, and he smiles in that same small way, like his mother.
Dean looks at Lissa, who has been silent too long. Her eyes have filled with tears.
“What if I’m wrong?” she says. “What if they’re all going to be in heaven without me?”
“Oh, Melissa.” George walks to the other side of the casket and puts his arm around her shoulder.
“I have to go,” Dean says. By the time he gets to his house, Cole will probably be in bed watching his tv. The pizza will be cold in its container, the crust stiffened and pepperoni circles curled up around the edges. Or maybe Karen will throw the whole thing in the trash can outside. He can get it out, though. If it’s still in the box, the inside will be okay. He’ll heat it up in the microwave and take it up to Cole’s room and maybe it will turn into one of those memories for him, one of those moments that change the flow of things. The night Dad took the pizza out of the trash and came up to my room and we sat on my floor together and he said, Listen, bud, I need to talk to you.
“It’s time for me to go,” Dean repeats, but then the three of them just stand there. Dean lets his own eyes close, and he sees the children of Dry River sailing with the tide of fresh rain water on colored rafts, green and yellow, red and blue, and Dean is one of them. George and his mother are standing in the middle of the rushing stream, waving, and up ahead are the Huish girls on identical inner tubes, wet braids dangling down their backs, holding hands, traveling the same direction.
About the Author
Leslie Johnson’s fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Chattahoochee Review, Third Coast, Threepenny Review, Cimarron Review, River Styx, and other journals. She lives with her family in Connecticut and teaches at the University of Hartford.