Chapter 61 is transitioning between the fictional purple prose chapters, and my memoirs, and we all know, memory is just another form of purple prose…
The mortician comes, a dreary dark man in a blue suit with frayed cuffs, shiny black hair combed straight back. He speaks limited English. Anna leaves the room. The mortician and I go over the form, the directive, try to communicate. Causa de muerte. Yes. Cancer. What does it matter?
“I don’t read Spanish,” I say. “I can’t sign this unless I know what it says. Can you tell me what it says, in English? We want his body shipped home by air, to be cremated there.”
The mortician draws himself up straight, his eyes cold on mine. “This is Mexico, not the U.S.,” he says. “In Mexico, we speak Spanish.” But it was clear he understood what I was asking for. He just wasn’t into being helpful or reassuring.
My hands shake and my eyes burn. It’s not worth it. I sign the forms. I sign them all. It’s his country, not mine. Maybe they will send home his ashes. I’m too tired to care. The mortician plucks the paper from my hands without touching me and walks to the door, his back straight.
The undertaker comes and takes Joe away in a red crushed velvet body bag. The glass doors shut behind the cart, and it disappears into the parking lot. Van doors open then slam shut, and a motor starts up loud and drives away. Drives away with Joe in the red bag to God knows where, somewhere in Tijuana.
Cold. I throw the pillow on the floor and lie back on Joe’s bed. Pull up his sheet and let its salty damp cover and warm me. Listen. Did his spirit linger, can I hear it, sense it, touch it?
Joe taken away, his body somewhere I don’t know. Jesus, my Elder Brother, gone, too. I am here alone, no brother of any kind in this room. The complete emptiness is all I can feel.
There is one more call after the necessary calls, after the undertaker takes Joe’s body away, after I climb into Joe’s bed. I get up and use the phone on the wall in the reception area, from where I had called Nellie, Jack, and Mom.
Anna Blessing. A close friend who finally gave up on the dreary gray dampness of the Northwest and headed for San Diego. Permanently.
Anna’s voice is a rising chirp, “Hell-o-oh.”
“You’re in Tijuana! How’s it going?”
“Joe just died.”
“My God! But you just got there!”
“I got here at noon yesterday. He died at four this morning.”
“Oh, Judy, oh shit, that’s horrible. I’m coming right down.”
“No, don’t come. I’m just going back to the airport.”
“But are you OK?”
What does OK feel like? Whatever this is, it’s no feeling at all. It’s unbalanced, not there.
“I’m OK,” I say. “Maybe I’m just numb or something.”
“I can’t hold your hand?”
Anna doesn’t mean actually holding my hand, but I picture it anyway, imagine her concern, her comfort, her small hand warm and sturdy holding mine. I know I couldn’t bear it, I’d break apart, mustn’t break anymore, not right now, things to take care of, have to get Joe home. Have to get myself home.
Anna always dressed like a latter-day hippy—I could picture her in a bright flowing dress of some kind.
“It’s a long trip across the border,” I say. “An hour, anyway. By the time you got here I’d probably be ready to leave anyhow.”
Anna breathes over the phone line, a long breath in, then out.
“I’ve never driven across the border,” she says. “But I’m leaving as soon as I can. I’ll get you to the airport.”
Today I have crossed borders I’d never crossed before. Borders of consciousness, of life and death, of faith. And back again. The border between life and death feel less tangible now, more permeable and shifting. Maybe the border between faith and no-faith is the same. Constantly shifting. Maybe they aren’t even opposing states, but just gradations on a continuum, where faith is at one extreme and no-faith at the other, and we move up and down that spectrum.
While I waited, I was in a nothing-there vacuum, just lying on Joe’s bed.
Three quick taps on the door, and I get up.
It’s Anna. Anna in a bright blue gauze dress with a large open-knit scarf in shades of rose, her purple velvet amulet bag on a long black satin cord around her neck. She drops a big silver thermos on Joe’s bed next to the duffel and wraps her arms around me, rocks me. How strong her arms, how soft her body, as welcome and familiar as I imagine a mother’s would be. We are both crying.
She holds me at arms’ length and unleashes the liquid fire of her electric blue eyes. “I thought you could use some coffee.”
Anna stays with me, walks me out of the room and into the damp dense air outside, around the building a few times, hands me cups of strong, scalding, real coffee in the lid-cup of the thermos. She doesn’t ask about Joe’s last hours. Her blonde hair is pulled into two pony tails with red rubber bands, her fair skin lightly tanned and toughened, the skin around her eyes sunglass-shaded white. She’s her old chirpy self, the way she was in the sunny months in Oregon, how she says she always was in Hawaii, how she misses Hawaii, San Diego the next best place to be, sunshine and warm.
She shapes her attitude to mine, slightly insane. We stop behind the building while she pours another cup of coffee. When she leans forward to hand me the coffee I grab her amulet bag to keep it out of the cup. Anna walks me back to the room. We lean against the foot of Joe’s bed. I see myself in the mirror, arms and hands floating and flying in the air, mouth open round, laughing. I pull my hands down, take hold of the bed frame behind me.
“Let’s go to the airport,” I say.
In Anna’s yellow hatchback I see things in Tijuana that I didn’t see from the shuttle on the way in. Then it was impressions, and the road in front of me. Now I see the dirt, the shacks, the outdoor adobe fireplaces for cooking.
At the border, long lines of cars inching forward, vendors peddle blankets and cheap silver jewelry along the lines of cars. A man in a battered straw hat sells tortillas from an outdoor fireplace.
The border guard is friendlier than I had expected, thanks us for visiting Mexico.
I remember very little about the airport, but here’s what I do remember:
Anna parks at the airport, carries my briefcase and tote bag. I tag along, willing to let her lead the way. Baggage claim is the first stop. Don’t ask where that was. I remember so little. My bag had been lost on the trip down, so I describe my bag to the lost bag person, describe its contents, its I.D. tag, and wait while they find it. I lose my plane ticket. Anna finds it in my purse. Anna negotiates at the airline counter, shows them the letter she got the clinic director to write before we left: This woman’s brother died this morning, please let her on an earlier flight without penalty, Signed, The Director. The agent rewrites the ticket and hands it to me without comment, sympathy in her eyes.
I lose my new ticket. Anna finds it in my pocket. She buys me a taco. We eat, we laugh, I babble, she puts her arm around me and walks me in circles around the terminal. She buys me an ice cream cone. I am wearing Joe’s yellow and green U of O duck cap and his big blue fuzzy jacket. People look at me, nudge each other. It must be the cap.
The flight is called, Anna hears it. She steers me to the gate.
I’ve lost my ticket. Anna finds it in my book.
“I think I’ll walk you onto the plane,” Anna says.
“Just walking her on,” she says to the stewardess, who waves us aboard.
Anna finds my seat, puts my ticket stub in my purse, and grins at me.
“Do I have to fasten your seat belt for you?”
I laugh, tears starting. Her arms around me.
“Thank you, dear friend,” I say. People are waiting in the aisle behind us. Anna pushes me toward the window seat, fastens my seat belt, and turns to fight her way back up the aisle.
My seat is on the left side of the plane.
At 30,000 feet, buckled in, wearing Joe’s soft blue jacket and his duck cap, the sounds of brass Telemann on Joe’s earphones, I look out my window.
It is the end of the day.
The sun is setting over the gray ocean and black-green landmass. A fire-red ball sits for twenty minutes poised on the line of the horizon, spreads layers of deep violet bleeding up into red-orange then chartreuse then gray-lavender sky, the fireball settling into the dark ocean inch by inch, half of it gone now, now two-thirds, now just a curved fingernail of fire, the chartreuse turning gold above it.
The slit of fire glows through the gray line of ocean edge, dissolving in its own heat, the red flickering glow spreading out, melting, flowing. The last slit of red is a dying ember in a campfire, bursts of red dancing along its length, then a quick green flash and the dark swallows it.
On the earphones, four triumphant trumpets burst into a fanfare. Joe’s sounds. Liquid trumpet sounds. Long, sustained tones flow and pierce, undulating, soothing, transfixing. When I played trumpet in high school, Joe had carried my trumpet case to the bus stop every day, and couldn’t wait to learn to play, himself.
I stopped being numb, leaned my head against the back of the seat and let the tears flow.
A lingering reflection from a fireball out of sight but still lighting the sky, drifting off into dark on the sides. Ocean deep midnight blue. No lights below the plane in the black land mass.
The last faint stain of sienna dissolves into the black.
On the earphones, the music ends.
The day is over.
The music is over.
Joe is gone.
Lights begin to flicker below the plane, maybe Salem, maybe the southern suburbs of Portland. More lights, the city, crowded freeways, tiny cars, their headlights long straight beams, everybody going home, going somewhere, flashing neon, the airport tower. Then landing lights,the runway, engines whine down louder and louder, wheels touch the ground, a bump.
Jack waits for me at the gate, his dear deep-lined face, his warm arms around me, takes my bag, pulls Joe’s black duffel off the carousel, the car waiting, in the car, the dark, headed home. Now the deep involuntary catching of breath, the leftover sounds of a child who finally stops crying. When I get home, Jack has a fire in the fireplace, waiting.
A year ago, driving Joe to treatments and doctors, I had grown fond of Joe’s music. The music backdropped our conversations and his morphine hallucinations. Joe liked to drive, didn’t like being a passenger. When it rained, he slid his seat back and stiffened his hands against the dashboard, his legs braced against the firewall. I drove his minivan too fast.
“One worries about hydroplaning,” Joe said. His voice was tense. I slowed down.
He once said, gazing at a cloudless sky, “There’s a sailboat right up there, a seven-master. Beautiful.” He watched it for miles.
“There’s a gray cat on your head.” Joe said. “It’s kneading its claws. How can you drive?”
Mom believed in parallel universes, places where we continued our lives in totally different ways at the same time as we worked things out in this reality. Maybe there was a seven-master in the sky, and a gray cat on my head, listening to the brass quartet on the radio.