The earth was dead. The air was still. Tiny snowflakes floated down like ash from the fallout of some great disaster far away. My sister was driving an old, rusted-out Dodge van with no heat and no door handles; hell, the entire inside of the door was missing. Just a bunch of rods and plastics to get stuck on, or grease to rub off on your pants. I paid it no mind, though; I wore all black back then, black so dark grease stains wouldn’t show. My sister, on the other hand, she’s the hippie who missed the bus, born two decades too late for peace and love and San Francisco.
The asphalt was frozen so hard you’d think it had gone brittle, like it would crack under your weight. The whole thing resembled an immense, dark pond of unfathomable depth. Salt stains etched the surface like cracks in the black ice. We pulled up to the thrift store in this squeaking, squealing ruckus machine and parked on the far end where it was easier to maneuver the behemoth. Elissa and I hopped down from the contraption, slamming the doors to make sure they’d stick.
“Well, we’re here.”
She said, “Yeah, I guess so.” My sister and I made our way across the pavement, brown boots and black boots slapping the parking-lot surface. It was one of those days during the Ohio winter when the bitter cold kept everything from moving. The earth was dead and everyone knew it, so they’d stay inside until it thawed out. I should’ve been in school, but given the circumstance I was allowed out. It’s not every day your mother dies, and I took advantage of it. I think I got a full two weeks out of school for that one.
Maybe three or four days prior, I’d been sitting in the hall outside my first-period class. It was sophomore biology, something of vague interest to me, but at that point I didn’t really care too much whether I passed or failed. There were other kids waiting out there, too, some because they were studious, others because they had nowhere else to go. I was of the latter. We were all strewn out along the cinderblock walls, all of which were painted a sterile beige. I must’ve been sitting there ten minutes before Mr. Duncan approached from around the corner.
Duncan served as half of a two-man, school-security team. This was before the school-shooting epidemic, so our school hadn’t instituted on-campus police yet. He was a tall, thin, middle-aged man, part bald, part gray-hair combover. He wasn’t exactly intimidating, but he was quite tall, a big enough man to corral some teenagers. Anyway, he identified me from the lot easily though I’d never spoken to him. “Ed, Ed Siffler?”
I hated being called Ed; that’s what my father called himself. “I am he,” I responded.
“I’m going to need you to come with me.”
I quickly ran through my mind’s laundry list of things for which I could’ve been busted. I couldn’t think of anything for which they had evidence. Then again, if I thought they might catch me, I probably wouldn’t have done them.
“What for? What did I do?”
“Just get your things and come with me.” So I packed my shit, textbooks and what have you, into my bag and got up. I looked around at my classmates to make sure they were watching; all were wide-eyed. Duncan and I started walking down the hall toward the front office. He had a firm grip on me. I knew better than to protest, so I sucked it up, ready to meet my maker—or the high-school equivalent, so to speak. I kept asking Duncan what I did, and he said nothing the whole time. We just walked in parallel down the corridors at a steady pace.
After a couple of minutes, we reached the dank receptionist area, which had little outside light but all fluorescence and beige. Elissa was there, so I knew exactly what was going on. She was teary-eyed, but there was a sense of relief, too. We had been waiting on the news for a while.
“Mom’s dead,” she said.
But Mom had been dead to me for a while now. There are few maladies as wretched as a terminal brain tumor. It hits you at your very soul and robs you of what you were. My mother lived as a woman of respectable intelligence, but she died an imbecile, deaf and blind and under the oppressive haze of morphine.
In three or four days or so—I can’t remember how many, but it couldn’t have been long, what with the decomposition and all—we were at the thrift store shopping for clothes for my mother’s naked corpse. Over the years I’d shopped at, worked for and stolen from this store, usually all at the same time.
The automatic doors clunked shut, and we were in, face-first into the odor of mothballs, attics, b.o. and sterilizing spray. We were greeted by whichever fool was working the register, someone who’d work for minimum wage. Elissa led our tiny funeral march down the aisles. There were only two other shoppers in the thrift store; it was dead, too. Neither Elissa nor I really knew what we were doing. It was a unique situation. After walking around aimlessly for a while, pretending to look at the shit that passes as marketable merchandise, we stopped. “What should we get her, do you think?” she asked me.
“I have no idea. I don’t even know why we’re doing this.”
“You know why.” And I did. My mother was due to be cremated. Being thrifty, she wanted the least-expensive option. As a matter of fact, she told me when she was still coherent that she wanted to donate her brain to science. I’m using the term “donate” loosely, of course, since there was a $10,000 price tag attached to her gray matter. Brain tumor and schizophrenia? Those college kids would have a field day, no doubt.
My aunt, however, had other plans. She managed to get my mother to sign over power of attorney. You couldn’t ask my mom what year it was or the name of the current president and get a satisfactory answer, but by god, she could sign over her rights as given to her by the U.S. constitution! After that, my aunt nixed the whole donation thing because she didn’t want anyone cutting up her sister’s body. It was always about fucking Aunt Marge.
Sometime between the day mom died and the day Elissa and I shopped for cremation attire, Marge visited the corpse in the morgue. Apparently, she was pretty upset about her big sis laying stark-ass naked in a cardboard box. If my ma could’ve seen it herself, I bet she’d have had a pretty good laugh. I mean, what do you expect, wrapping paper and a bow?
Neither Elissa nor I knew what size my mother wore and, to be honest, she’d probably lost a little weight since she died. We decided on elastics. What could be more comfortable in the oven than a pair of sweatpants? Sweats and a T-shirt, of course.
Elissa turned to me in the middle of the aisle. “What color should we get?”
“Black, I guess.” I may have seemed a little partial.
“What about these?” she asked.
“They’re a nice blue.”
“OK,” I replied.
“Well, that might bring out how blue she is.”
Perhaps the best quality Elissa and I inherited from our mother is our sense of humor. We’ve been dealt some shitty hands over the years, but Mom showed us it’s OK to laugh in times of despair. They used to play a game, she and Mom, when bill collectors would call. Whichever of them answered would come up with the most outlandish excuse, like saying they were just watching the house and we were all on vacation in the tropics and couldn’t be bothered. We won the lottery more times than anyone in history. The world has it out for us, but damn it, we’re going to laugh in its face. We’re going to live just to spite it. So that’s what our little clan does, I think: We keep going because we’re angry at the world. We survive as a source of revenge against the trouble we endure.
So we carried on. “How about red?”
“I—I really don’t think it matters,” I retorted.
“No, we can’t do red.” she said with a grimace, like someone trying to figure out a difficult math problem.
“Well, that will just bring out how pale she is.” said Elissa.
“I guess you’re right.”
“Maybe we should just go with black?” she said, staring at the racks of garments.
“Yeah, I think so.”
At the thrift store, my sister and I stood in line with my mother’s final wardrobe under Elissa’s arm. “So do you want to come to the morgue with me? I need to drop these off,” asked Sissy.
“No, I’m good.”
“I understand.” she said. And she did.
Finally, we made it up to the register and Elissa dropped the clothes on the counter. “How are you two doing today?” the cashier asked.
“Did you find everything you were looking for?” More questions, I thought.
“Yes, we did, thank you.”
“Yeah, clothes for my mom’s dead body.” I love fucking with people. The cashier was pretty quiet after that.
Elissa paid for the funeral garb, and a solemn “Have a nice day” followed us out the automatic doors. Clunk. The day my ma croaked, what was left of the family was gathered in a conference room on the umpteenth floor of some Methodist hospital. We’re supposed to be Methodist. Elissa, Grandpa, Marge, and I all sat in this little, beige room. Always fucking beige! There were hospice people there, running over unnecessary details while Marge sobbed; the rest of us were quiet. Grandpa knew death. He watched his wife die. He watched men die in the Pacific. Shame to be so old, over eighty, and watch your daughter die, too.
Elissa and I had been trained by the best to handle tragedy, but Marge had to let everyone know how bad it made her feel.
They asked, “Do you want to see her?” See who? I thought. The rest of the family said yes, but I answered no. “We respect that,” said one of the hospice folks. What else could they say? So everyone got up and walked out to say their goodbyes to someone who wasn’t there. I was all alone in that little, beige room, sitting in a kiddie chair because that’s all they left for me. Looking around for something to occupy myself—no smartphones back then—I gazed upon a stack of children’s toys, board games and such. There in the stack was a busted Etch-a-Sketch. I pulled it out, stared at it for a minute, and shifted the knobs—left and right, left and right, left and right. I went on like that for a while until I’d drawn a square spiral and, in the center of it, a little, black stick man, falling.
* Edward Stiffler originally hails from Columbus, Ohio, but he recently found his new home in Tacoma. After a failed marriage and an uninspiring career, he decided to hit the road and experience the world beyond the borders of his home state. Over the years he’s worn a number of hats: salesperson, theater usher, computer technician, production supervisor and park maintenance worker. He only recently started writing, beginning with his blog, www.withoutanydirection.com, and it has proven to be an excellent outlet for a creative side he hadn’t embraced for some time. In the last year, he’s put together a small portfolio of short stories and poetry.