June 21, 2006


By Mella © 2006

Things aren't as clear cut as they used to be. I'm not talking about life or how things were in the old days when people knew more clearly the difference between right and wrong, or anything like that. I'm talking about the lines on the pavement outside Miller's Convenience store. They used to be clearer cut.

Miller's shares a parking lot with a gas station and a Cracker Barrel, just after the bend on Pond Road. There were yellow lines dividing where to enter and where to exit, up until the summer when they repaved the lot. It was thicker and blacker. It looked hot and fresh for weeks, like you could sink into it if you stood still for too long. And it smelled like tar. But they didn't repaint the yellow lines. They weren't there the night Kevin went to Miller's at supper time to pick up what Mom forgot. The milk.

By the time my sisters and I got there, it had all been cleaned up. Shattered bits of glass shimmered in the grassy edge of the lot. A few shards of orange and red plastic settled in with the bits of tar and gravel along where the grass pressed against the tar. But we didn't see it. We didn't see the two hulks of gnarled metal mashed into one grinding mass of sharp glass corners and bumpers torn in two.

Only Mom and Dad were there to smell the smoky residue of airbags exploded and gasoline and tar. They were the only ones to hear the droning car alarms and the ambulance wail as it screeched into the parking lot. Only they saw the line of his body, the long bumps of his arms and legs, the round hump of his head pressing up against the white blood-speckled sheet, strapped on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance.

At the wake we were all numb and felt heavy, like we were wading through water. He was the baby of the family, just home from college for the summer; and there he was, wearing his best suit and lying peacefully with a make-up caked face and his hands folded on his chest. They had to work hard to fix him up for the casket. Not only had he been mangled, but his hair had flecks of oil paint in it from his summer job. It was under his nails too. His skin had been worn to leather from the sun on the ladders, painting.

After the funeral, my uncles and father carried him out. Mom and my sisters and I lead the procession, staring through watery eyes at the shining black box. It didn't seem possible that it contained my brother. How can that simple thing hold him? How can it hold any of us?

* * * * *

One year later, we all gathered for dinner, standing nervously around the table trying to not make the tension as obvious as it was. Krista, my youngest sister, was the first to mention it.

"Are we expecting someone else?" She rubbed her elbow while watching Mom closely for a reaction. There was a place setting at Kevin's seat. Dad eyed her from across the table, shaking his head slowly.

Mom ignored the comment and sighed, smoothing her hand over her apron. She surveyed the table, inspecting each steaming serving dish. Corn. Potatoes. Meatloaf.

"Oh, I forgot the gravy!" Her hand flew to her forehead and she turned back to the kitchen, calling back to us, "sit, sit! I'll bring it right out."

We sat, listening to the hum of the air conditioner. She returned with the gravy boat. It looked like a topless porcelain genie bottle with a thick drip of brown running down the spout. She placed it carefully between the potatoes and the meat. And then she sat beside Dad, the dull thud of a tape recorder echoed as she set it beside her plate.

"Oh, for God sake, Katherine, not tonight." Dad slapped the table, knocking the recorder on its back and wobbling the wine in our glasses.

"Every night." She stared blankly ahead. "You'll bury me with it."

"This is ridiculous, I mean, really." His head shook vigorously. His eyes implored us around the table: help.

She had bought the tape recorder two days after the accident, convinced that if she had remembered to pick up milk on her way home from the work that evening, her son would still be alive. She recorded everything she might need throughout the day. So that she wouldn't forget.

At first, she slid the plastic strap around her wrist and clutched the body of it in her palm throughout the day. Later, she found it more practical to have it attached to her somehow, so she couldn't lose it. She fashioned a clasp and clipped it securely inside her purse, easily accessible for her. She rambled to herself in the car. She talked to it in her cubicle at work. At the market, she replayed her lists. Potatoes. Chicken thighs. Cheese. Milk. She would never let her self forget.

"Mom," I said weakly, but stopped short at her eyes. They were steel gray with a relentless gaze locked on the wall behind my father's head. She wasn't listening.

"I'm sorry, girls," Dad stood from the table, picking up his glass. Red wine sloshed over the lip and splattered on his shirt. He didn't stop moving, "I thought having you here tonight would help." He walked to the living room, still muttering, but only to himself.

We all stared in different directions. At Mom. At the recorder. At the porcelain serving dishes from which we had scooped some of our happiest memories. Sweet potato mousse, dense bread stuffing, shiny succotash and beef stew, chicken and rice. Now they sat, full of food made by the same hands, but somehow empty.

Dad was right about the recorder. It was a presence at the table. It wasn't Kevin presence. It was hers: her all consuming guilt.

* * * * *

It's been years now, since the accident, since the anniversary. But she still carries it. Her little scarlet letter, tucked in her purse; meaningless to everyone but our family. Occasionally, while she listens to her lists or while recording the ingredients for the salad she wants with dinner, people will ask her what she's doing.

What an odd idea, they say.

"I just want to make sure I remember," she always responds politely.

"Remember what?"

She pauses before answering, quietly letting the night wash over her; remembering everything. The ear piercing drone of the alarm, the smell of tar and smoke. The flashing lights, the white bloodstained sheet wheeling past her, his paint stained fingertips peeking from beneath it.

"Important things." Her polite smile fades as she looks at them through sad gray eyes, "like milk."

Mella is a full-time grad student and over tired mama, staving off insanity by writing.

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