The meditation center was small: white stucco, red tile roof, an iron fence around the parking lot. Tiny curled leaves from someone else’s trees were scattered across the parking lot, along with dates from the palms, fallen months ago and left to lie, obscuring the already-fading white lines. The heat was thick, not with humidity, but the weight of the heat itself, coming up from the asphalt and the sidewalk. This was summer: growth, but even more so death, overgrowth of plants, rot and decay, everything burned dry, dormant, waiting for things to turn.
She pushed open the glass door of the center, into the air conditioning. The building had been a small law or insurance office once, perhaps; it was built like a house, with interconnected rooms. Inside almost everything was bare: the floors dark wood, rooms clear of furniture. There was a travel poster on the wall, showing a distant view of temple in Thailand. This was so familiar she no longer even noticed it.
A man in jeans, passing down the hall, smiled at her, his hand coming up in something that might have been a wave or perhaps a mock salute, sketched across his forehead with two fingers.
“Hi, Liz,” he said. She smiled but did not reply; she stopped a second, however, turning her head to watch him go by. Then she went on across the hall, into the main room. There were four or five people in it, a circle of folding chairs, cushions on the floor. She sat on a chair. Smiles, greetings – she knew some of them, but there were always newcomers – a man in a blue shirt, standing up to stretch, bending side to side. No one said anything significant. The man sat down and rang a small metal cowbell.
She closed her eyes. Drop down, drop down below the thoughts, the running chatter of her mind…she did and she did not, for something was always agitated by this process; she did it, but there was always a residue, a small bit of worry left. She explored this, measured it with her mind as if putting her hands around it, turned her concentration back to her breath, felt it slow and deep. The air conditioning had been blowing; it shut off now with a mechanical click.
There had been another noise, too, behind the air conditioning, a thud, which she pictured as someone moving on the other side of the wall, outside the building, knocking over or against a garbage can. The lower part of her mind, far below her breathing, the oldest part, brought up an image of a man in a suit, crouched behind the cans. She held herself still, held her breath, listening for the noise to come again, so she would know. Someone near her coughed, someone else drew a deep breath. She looked again at the worry, the fear, always there, touched it, but could not undo it. She went back to her breathing, to the rise and fall of her chest. But underneath she waited, scanning, worried.
When the bell rang they all sat back, talking again. A man read from his dream journal; he lay on his back, against the cushion, pushing up his glasses to squint at the words in the journal. He had dreamed he was camping and a rumor had gone around that the camp was going to be attacked by bears, then the other campers disappeared and he was left alone to face them. She listened to him talk, pick apart the dream, what he knew, what he did not know, what he felt. There were no bears in the dream, just the fear of them. Someone mentioned bears in Native American legend anyway. She didn’t say anything. She did not understand; she never dreamed dreams like that, dreams with plots, dreams you could explain to people. A woman, also on the floor, flicked a strand of long gray hair back over her shoulder, said something, which she listened to, looking at her hands. She spoke more here, sometimes. They knew her, they liked her, small references were passed, to the things she had told them, about her job or her dog. At other times she said that she had studied with, or known, this or that teacher, that she was familiar with this or that place, mostly in California. But sometimes she did not speak much. She listened, and she thought of things she might say in the future, what it might be safe to reveal, though it was not actual safety she worried about so much anymore, but being caught in confusion, having people think there was more to her than she wanted them to know.
There was so much – a mountain, a pile, under which there were things she had not turned over or looked at in years. In some moods she realized her guilt, was astonished by it, all the things she and the others had done, not just the worship of violence, the lying, the bank robberies, but the basic disregard, at bottom, for any belief but their own. It was not the kind of thing you could explain easily now.
The others began to stand up and she got up as well, saying goodbyes, going back through the hall and pushing out the glass door again. Outside it was hot. White light, white sidewalk. A small black insect, one of those wretched nameless bugs that only came out in the heat, was crawling along the edge of the curb. She hated the summer: it reminded her of those days in the desert, the sun always high and round in the sky – it would be like that everywhere, soon, they had believed: hot and dry and ugly, no water, war, pollution, chaos. There was no future for humanity. They had all believed that, very strongly. There was film of her, an unrecognizable her, her long hair tucked behind her ears, blithely telling a reporter there was a revolution coming – it turned up in documentaries on the 70s, had even been on CNN once. Ten seconds of film. Surely she had just been delighted to show off for the reporter, in his square suit and tie, to tease him. But still, ten seconds, on record, to be called up at any time by any one with something to prove.
When she started the car she sat for a moment with her hand in front of the a/c vent, trying to feel the cold air on her fingers. Normal car air conditioning was not meant for this climate; by the time it began to actually cool the car she had usually arrived wherever she was going. She was remembering that for a long time the future had come back. Somehow everyone had begun to believe in it, everything wrong could be fixed, the young people would see to that. Then, in the past few years, this belief had ended; she was not sure why, exactly, because circumstances had hardly changed. But then, people would believe anything, with enough little bits of evidence provided. If she could testify to nothing else, she could testify to that.
She started the car. The man who had greeted her, lifting his fingers in a salute, was crossing the parking lot; she watched him in the rear-view mirror as she backed out. Years ago – a guy, sitting cross-legged on the grass in Golden Gate Park. (Was it Golden Gate Park? She was not sure, but came to the conclusion it must have been.) There was music, people were dancing, someone wearing feathers was chanting. The guy was sitting beside a girl she knew; she had stopped, seeing Jane lying there, on a bad trip, trembling, sweating, mumbling, I’m not gonna die, over and over. The statement had not been an expression of fear, but of confidence, even in that trembling state, of immortality. The guy had sat, smiling, incurious, holding Jane’s hand, keeping a jacket tucked around her. Then, as she moved on, he had lifted his hand, giving her that same kind of a sketch of a salute, implying, perhaps, that it would be all right, that he would take care of Jane. She had never seen either one of them again. But she had remembered it, maybe just because she did not quite understand what he had meant to promise, if anything.
In the scrum of traffic, among familiar landmarks, the half-built apartment complex, still wooden framing on one side, the noodle restaurant on the corner, the gray pickup truck behind her signaling, going around her, as she looked at the speedometer, checking that she was right at the speed limit. She watched the pickup moving in and out of traffic, wanting to see if it would pass anyone else, or if the driver was just annoyed at her. The street was wide, multi-lane, meant for traffic, as were the stores along it; everything jumbled together, all the run-of-the-mill businesses, old buildings, new signs – credit unions, florists, dentists, tires and auto parts, taverns advertising gaming, restaurants promising such various things as catfish dinners and tacos al pastor – everything individual, but pushed up close, no reason, no notice taken of anything in particular; even the meditation center offering itself between a catering hall and a diagnostic imaging center.
On the radio the music ended, the DJ was saying something she could not hear. It was a public station, which had once played jazz and now played smooth jazz; she did not mind either way, kept it on only because there were no commercials. Sometimes at night it played other programs, national ones from far away. Sometimes they seemed to say something, on those dark nights, but more often she was struck by their recurrent, obsessive passions, the gee-whiz way of looking at life which she had long since exhausted.
She passed the turnoff for her apartment building, went on, under the highway, paying some attention to the street signs, for she did not usually come out this far, though the neighborhood was much the same as hers, only a little newer. Eventually she turned, and then turned again, into a parking lot. Like the meditation center there was a yard of pebbles, not the light-tinged desert rocks that came from rock yards and nurseries, but an old-fashioned scattering of white and gray, mixed in with needles and cones from a row of pines along the edge of the parking lot. In front of the building next door landscapers were at work, two men in long-sleeved shirts and straw hats, moving with leaf blowers to corral the pine needles. She went up the walk. There was nothing outside the building, which was also like a house, except, just at the door, a small sign of dark metal which said The Andromeda Society. She opened the door, hesitating in the hallway, then went to the right, into what looked like a waiting room. There was a woman there, behind a high counter. She looked up from her computer screen.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m here for James Levine.”
“I’m Sally Horne. You called yesterday and said he was ready.”
The woman stood up, looked at something on her desk, went into a back room, came back, looked at something on the computer, left again. She sat down on a couch near the window. A Madonna song from twenty or thirty years ago was playing on the receptionist’s computer, something she had heard a million times, a radio hit when she was past much interest in what was played on the radio, still more familiar than anything around today. There were posters on the walls, affordable peace of mind, pre-planning, security, pamphlets on the receptionist’s desk, with a picture of a woman her age, with silver hair, smiling a little sadly.
The woman came out again with some papers, which she pushed over the counter. She looked through them and signed in two places. Then she saw the urn, on the desk next to the computer. She felt a slight relief, for she had been afraid they might ask for ID.
“This is for the cemetery,” the woman said, pushing over a smaller form. “You’re going to be placing it in a cemetery, correct?”
She glanced at the information printed in various boxes, wondering if they had gotten Middle Name: Avram, and Place of Birth: Detroit, Michigan from Jim himself. She supposed they might even be true. She put the form in her purse and the woman lifted the urn onto the counter. It was smaller, plainer, than she had pictured, made of some light plastic. There was a metal plaque on it – perhaps not even quite metal, just something resembling it – with Jim’s name.
She had not seen Jim dead, or even at the hospital. When she had realized he was living here, they had met a few times, at first in a park, like in a spy movie, but later at Starbucks or outdoor cafes in various shopping centers. There were security cameras in those places, but she had persuaded him that nothing would happen, the cameras – if anyone was looking at them at all – were for common criminals, not fugitives from decades ago.
Still, they saw each other only those few times, in all the years. There was not much they had in common, perhaps. Not politics – she paid little attention, having her opinions but not finding them reflected by most candidates, not expecting them to, unwilling to take an interest if it meant changing her mind. The rest of their lives had spun themselves out too quickly, they had no families, just distant relatives, occasionally connected with (spurned for years, they were now a source of bragging.) So there was nothing else; she had shrunk back into society, into normality, in a way that disappointed him, she thought. She had had no choice – the others in the group had something to push them ahead, connections, publicity, even glamour; she had nothing, no education, had ended up taking the kind of jobs you took without education, for a while with a secret consciousness of superiority. That, too, had faded long ago.
But of course for Jim the stakes were very different. She faced nothing, really – the bank robberies, for instance, were beyond the statute of limitations. There had been other charges, small ones, conspiracy, possession, also too old, but possibly still alive because she had jumped bail on them; an old contempt charge, too. The bail had been only a few thousand – it had seemed a lot then, but was hardly worth anyone’s time now. Still, if they did find her, they would make a big deal of it, parade her in front of the cameras, talk about the group’s crimes, make angry speeches, call it terrorism – as though their group could have had anything to do with today’s barbarians, those creatures in black slinking through the streets of Paris and Brussels. (Yet it was true, too, that when she saw such things, she thought that in a way the world had gotten what was coming to it, that they had predicted all this, years ago, as the consequences of capitalism, racism and war.) It was, among other things, this fear, of being put through the charade, unable to speak any kind of truth for herself, that had kept her underground.
But Jim – he had, if not planted bombs, built them, and the bombs had killed someone, though not intentionally. That had been after she jumped bail, so she had not been there, did not know exactly how he was involved, but she did not doubt he was guilty in some way. That was certain enough: he was not one to talk and leave things up in the air, he had been intent on action, always.
Nevertheless, she really knew nothing incriminating, had not seen anything with her own eyes, had never heard anything from Jim himself about it. All she could provide were rumors, decades-old gossip, smudged and smeared, worthless fragments from a bad memory, stories that might have been true once but looked different forty years later.
As long as they lived here, she and Jim communicated by mail, to her PO box. They never called on a regular phone line; she did not have a cell phone, did not want one, above and beyond the idea that it might be risky. She had email and a computer, but she used it mostly for things you had to have a computer for – reserving books at the library, for instance. Thus she had drawn the lines, and Jim, who made everything so much riskier, had drawn them too. Just the odd letter – fancy that there would come a time when they might consider the US mail the safest way to communicate! But anything electronic could be hacked, read, he would not do it, and she did not mind, did not really know enough about newer ways of communication to prefer them.
She had not had a letter in six months – though she had known about the cancer – when the last one arrived, a month ago. It was simply instructions about the Andromeda Society and the cemetery niche, what number to call, who to see. No other words, no philosophy. Perhaps he had been very sick when he wrote it. But he seemed to have thought everything out, to have made his plans, settled the bills, leaving her only to carry out his last wishes. There was no one else, she guessed.
She had waited a week, and then called the number. Sally Horne was a name she had used years ago, in a different city; Jim had either forgotten her current name, or more probably plucked it out of the past on purpose. It had taken two days of confused phone calls before the Andromeda Society had acknowledged having Jim, another week before they had said he was ready. She had been made nervous by the waiting. She was still made nervous by it now; she realized, as with the man crouching next to the garbage can, that that part of her mind had always attributed to the FBI slightly incredible, almost Greek-fate-like powers, an ability to bide its time, trick her, swoop in when she was least suspecting.
“And here’s the death certificate.” The woman handed over a sealed envelope.
She took it, though she did not know what use she might have for it. She could not keep it: nothing must link her with Jim. But she could not protest, it might look funny.
“Thank you,” she said, and lifted the urn, holding it against her body.
She went outside. The landscapers were gone. It was silent, as it usually was during the heat of the day. By habit she looked at the horizon: there were some clouds, but they were not the right color, not dark or thick enough. She put the urn on the seat, then, though she had checked the top to see that it would not come off easily, moved it to the floor on the passenger side, wedging her purse next to it so it would stay upright.
She drove home, going a little faster than usual, noticing by the clock in the car that she had only twenty minutes before she had to go to work. At the top of the stairs to her apartment she rested for a second, holding her purse and the urn, out of breath, only slightly recovered when she opened the door. Lung capacity normal for your age, the pulmonologist had said, come back and see me in a year. That had been more than a year ago though. The apartment complex was for seniors, partially subsidized; she had been hesitant to apply for a long time, but, as so often turned out, nothing in particular had come of it. She had a driver’s license and a Social Security card, but they were not in the name she had been born with; they had been taken, like Sally Horne, from the birth certificate of a long-dead child, applied for in a California records office years ago.
As she closed the door she heard the sound of Greta’s collar jangling; the dog came out from the bedroom, waddling, in a busybody way, like an old lady in slippers, back and forth, from the door to the kitchen. She put the urn on the table, bent down to pet her behind her small pointed ears. For a few minutes, then, there was nothing to say; the TV was on, a show she usually watched, in which people renovated and flipped houses, contractors moving in fast motion, fixing up the walls, installing new curtains; she went in the kitchen and took her blood pressure medication, looking at her watch, refilled Greta’s water bowl. Greta was elderly, a mix, with some Sheltie discernible; she had come – complete with name – from a neighbor who had moved. She had had her two years; she was not sure if the dog would live two more even, nor was she sure she had ever replaced the neighbor in Greta’s heart; she thought that Greta accepted her as kind of a duty, a person to be bossed, but also a failure, less successfully bossed than Greta’s previous owner. She could not be bossed, really, not even by a dog.
Silvia, standing outside the store entrance, looking at her phone, said hi as she passed. Silvia was short, with short dark hair, streaked light brown here and there to cover the gray. She was Filipino, spoke with a lilt. Something about Silvia was that Silvia looked at her closely, she thought, not with the broad smiles, the useful friendliness of most people, but as if Silvia wanted her to talk to her, to bring herself towards her. How come you never get married? Silvia had asked her once, her lilt striking the get hard. She had made up an answer, described a husband something like Erik, said that they had been divorced years ago. It might almost be the truth. But she had thought it a rude question – as if all women were supposed to be married, for one thing.
Most of the women who worked in the store were like her or Silvia: older women, some supporting husbands who were unemployed or on disability, others eking out small pensions, nothing to retire on. In the break room, in the back of the store, she opened her locker, changed into her blue shirt, thick and heavy, put on the ID badge that said Liz Perrone. She went back out, with her register drawer. The store was crowded; she walked around crooked shopping carts, around elderly people crouched in scooters, thinking, as she passed them, of America, the most powerful nation on earth, inhabited chiefly by these pale, crippled people who lived on and on and were positive they knew right from wrong.
She opened her register, smiling at the customers, not hearing herself greet them, scanning, the line growing. Did you find everything you wanted? Carla, the manager, came over with some instruction, moved on. Music played on the PA system, very high, nothing more than a beat. In the break room, two hours later, her feet tired in their solid shoes, her braced knee tight, Leila, one of the younger employees, was saying, I can’t sleep more than three, four hours a night. The doctor gave me Ambien but I don’t like what it does to you. She waved her hand in front of her face, the motion presumably illustrating the drug’s effect. Leila was pretty, must have been stunningly cute, ten years ago, now the outline remained, over a softer face, something tired but more resilient. Silvia, dumping out her coffee at the sink, said, I get up at five-thirty every day. Can’t help it. Back at the register a man was annoyed, moving his paper plates and wine so they would not get mixed up with someone else’s goods, an exception to the general rule of customers either being talkative, or not looking at her (less, she thought, from disdain, than just being busy finding their money or squinting at the card reader.) She was reminded of a man she knew as a teenager, a man whose children she had babysat. David, Deborah and – another little boy, whose name was gone now. Nor could she recall their last name. (Her mind kept bringing up Walley, which could not be right, Deborah Walley had been Gidget – she remembered that well enough, for some reason.) She had not liked the man, his jokes, or the way he looked at her. Just the thought of that time caused her some agony now, though he must be years dead, the children grown up, yet the emotion was still there, in its own cul-de-sac, useless to probe, useless even to ask herself now if she had not been in the wrong, if they might not have, plausibly, considered her a terrible babysitter: moody, sly, undependable.
She could remember this same sly, undependable, moody person, now older, the feel of the carbine in her hands, the prickling metallic smell, the pull of the strap on her shoulder. They had gone out into the desert to practice and she had struggled to control the weapon, thought she would never manage. She had wanted to do it right, because of Erik, but she had also liked the feeling, the strangeness of it, the idea that this was something she could learn. The first time at the bank all she had had to do was hold the rifle trained vaguely in the direction of several customers, mainly a black girl in an orange minidress, who, with an expression of bewilderment, kept lifting her hands higher and higher. The second time – but the second time was disaster – she had fired, just as clumsily as she had in the desert, over the heads of the customers, whom they had made lie on this floor this time, a chuk-chuk of bullets everywhere, as they ran, leaving Erik and Magdalena behind, wounded and dying. They had blamed the police for their deaths, but in truth no police had been on the scene yet, just a security guard, who had opened fire with his revolver. So it was possible that her bullets, in the terrible crossfire, might have killed them. Years later, from a magazine article in a doctor’s waiting room, she had learned that the rifle she had used was considered inefficient by generations of soldiers, it had little firepower, wounded rather than killed oncoming Japs and North Koreans. But there had been bullets enough, bullets everywhere. She still thought of that. And how surprised she had been that people you were supposed to trust with your life, people you thought were just like you, were at the crucial moment unable to fire, or did things they were not supposed to do, things contrary to common sense, like running away on foot, forgetting about the getaway car.
Afterwards those of the group who were left wanted to continue, to improve and expand. But they also knew that they would not carry on, really – partly because someone always had an argument or objections – mostly because they had discovered that they could not trust each other. They never said so though; they could not, and so they continued on for some years, resurrecting the same rhetoric, the simplest logical traps swinging shut on them, the strangest lines of thought pursued, untangled, justified.
Back in the break room, the store closing up, hanging up her shirt, the room crowded now, Silvia speaking loud Tagalog to one of the stock boys, the boy’s head pulled back, held still, as if he did not like what she was saying, someone laughing at something on their phone, music still coming out of the speakers, barely audible, kids…someone said, birthday party tomorrow…She actually liked the store. Though she did not suppose the others felt that way, there was a satisfaction to her in having a territory, a register, all her own; she was pleased too, by the efficiency of things scanned, sold, bagged. Something in the job settled her; during the hours there she seemed to be standing in the light, among real life, when so much else was rootless and cut off.
She drove home. The streets were empty; there was little traffic late at night, away from the Strip. Once again the image of the black girl in the orange minidress came back to her. It was the one image, out of all she had done, that did persevere; she saw her quite often in a puzzled, frightened face, or the way someone stood in a crowd. Her expression, almost eager to please, the way she kept pushing her hands up, white purse swinging from her shoulder, bronze hoop earrings peeking out just under her hair.
In fact, at the time of the robbery itself she had not really thought about the girl, she’d been watching the security guard, wondering if they would actually get away with it, feeling the triumph as they fled, the exultation back in the car. It was only after the second robbery that the image had started to recur, the way the girl had bitten her lip in fear, her own contrasting pride as she held the gun on her. (She was aware of the irony, of course, that in the name of revolution, of standing up for the oppressed peoples of the world, she was threatening to shoot one. But irony was a rather flat thing, a mild joke, there was not much to be learned from it.) She had often wondered if the woman was still alive, living, like herself, in some suburb, or a retirement community, if she remembered the robbery, if it was something she came back to in her mind, something she had told her children about, for instance. It was not that she felt especially apologetic, or even kindly, towards the woman – the encounter had been too brief for any kind of emotion to form. But it remained as a point of entry, the only one she still acknowledged, into her old life.
When she woke the next morning the light was different and she knew it was cloudy. She looked through the blind but the streets were dry. Still, there was a possibility of rain. The clouds were grayish and vaporous, the air humid, as if it were Florida.
She took Greta out, quickly, disappointed her, herding her back up the stairs, and changed into a skirt and flat shoes. The urn was still on the table, the death certificate next to it. She had not liked having them there, even overnight. As she picked up the urn, she noticed Greta watching her, probably wondering why she was leaving the house so early, and she bent down and said goodbye, smoothing the fur on the top of her head. Greta barked once, something she rarely did, giving the impression of either discouragement or warning.
In the streets people were out, parents with children, bicyclists in pointy helmets, red and yellow logos on their shirts, a woman with an umbrella at a bus stop. The cemetery, large and well-known, had been on the edge of town once; now, surrounded by housing developments; it was still hardly visible from the road, hidden by walls. Inside these it was green, acre upon acre of green, with heavy, old shade trees from back East. The headstones did not stick up but lay flat on the ground, flecks of white amid the grass.
In the office she told them her name was Sylvia Horne, then sat, waiting, wondering if they would notice the mistake. The woman behind the desk brought her papers to fill out: her supposed address, over and over, swearing to having legal authority, promising to overlook damage, negligence and acts of God. She set the paperwork from the Andromeda Society on the counter, with the urn. The woman at the counter took the papers somewhere, brought them back, and then asked for her ID.
“What do you need ID for?” she asked.
“It’s our policy. Families can have disagreements, you know, that sort of thing.”
“But I – I don’t want to take him. I want to leave him here.” Again she realized she ought not to protest much, and added, “It’s not that I don’t have it – I just didn’t bring anything – I came on the bus, I don’t drive anymore. So I don’t have a driver’s license and I didn’t bring anything else.”
The woman was looking at her closely. She tried to remember if she had parked in sight of the office, if she might have been visible getting out of the car. If she walked away, leaving Jim sitting on the counter, what would they do with the ashes? She did not want to leave; this was what Jim had wanted, a niche amid the grass and trees, instead of being kept in her closet. She felt the old fake smile, the persuasive look, creep onto her face.
“I didn’t think, I really didn’t think – I mean, how could it matter – the Andromeda Society gave him to me, they saw my ID. Everything’s in order. All the papers. He left very specific instructions, everything’s paid for.”
“It’s our policy,” the woman said. “Just a minute.”
The woman went back, into a second office. She could hear her talking to someone. She waited, as she had waited so many times, trying to look indifferent. Two voices. Or was the man on the phone, talking to someone? She picked up her purse to leave, but the woman came back out, walking quickly, the discontented expression not quite gone from her face, and said:
“I can take you over there now, but you will need to bring your ID next time you come.”
“Certainly. I’ll do that.” She felt pleased, as she often did, at how easy it was to trick people.
“Then if you will just sign here, Ms. Horne. There isn’t anyone else, is there?”
“Anyone else? Well, I was – Jim didn’t know many people – and –”
“No,” the woman said, “I mean a minister or someone like that. Sometimes the family has a ceremony when the urn is placed. Like a funeral. Or someone says a prayer.”
“Oh, no, Jim wouldn’t have wanted that. He didn’t…he wouldn’t have wanted that.” She was not sure that this was true. Jim had never said anything about it at all. But she felt she had to explain forcefully what seemed to be an odder and odder situation.
“All right then.” This answer seemed to give the woman some satisfaction, as if it was no more than to be expected. Surely there were plenty of people who came in like this, opted for something simple, no doves or songs, just wanted to leave the urn and walk away. Estranged children of difficult fathers, or distant relatives going about their duties.
They went out of the office together and walked along the side of a narrow road, past the rows of flat stones. The sun had come out. It was still humid, made more so by the grass and trees. She looked over her shoulder once and saw it was raining on the other side of town, the mountains obscured by straight blue lines. As was usual in the summer, even a short distance felt longer than it was. The woman was in a skirt and espadrilles, with a slight heel; she had a nametag on that said Cristina Hurst. She was over fifty, perhaps, her face browned, distant; in spite of the difficulty she had in the espadrilles she was probably one of those women who walked in the early morning through the streets of her community, a water bottle in hand, propelling herself forward in the vague hope that she would not be felled by disease or disability, that life would continue always like this.
“We have indoor columbaria too,” Cristina said. “Did you see those? They have glass niches. Those are very popular – you can sit inside, where it’s cool, and the urn is visible through the glass. It’s more like really having a visit with your loved one.”
She wondered if Cristina was trying to sell her something, or if this was merely her way of making conversation. She did not like to think of sitting on a sofa in the air conditioning, looking at a wall of glass niches, flowers and stuffed animals and trinkets piled up, things like that seemed grotesque to her. She was here not to remember Jim, but to fulfill his last wishes. If he had asked her to tip his ashes into a dumpster, she would have done that as surely as what she was doing right now, going to all this trouble, in the heat.
They had turned off the road, onto a path. Up ahead she saw the columbarium, like a small war memorial, intersecting granite blocks, the faces of which were blotched by spots that, she saw when she got closer, were actually flowers, stuck into vases bolted to the niches. The niches were engraved, names and dates at the top, sometimes with a picture below, or a small carving, of a bird or a cross or, in one case, a motorcycle. Others were blank. She followed Cristina around the side of a block, then they doubled back. An elderly man, silver-haired, with glasses, standing in front of one of the niches, turned and looked at them as they passed.
There was an open niche on this side, on the second level from the bottom, the opening covered by a blue curtain. Cristina stopped and looked at her paper.
“1250,” she said. “This is it. Now, the facing will go on later today. I have a picture if you want to see it.” She had taken a phone from her pocket; now she swiped a few times, then held the screen out. The picture had been taken outside, in some kind of workshop; it showed a marble square, one of a row, propped against a wall; it was just close-up enough that she could read James A. Levine and see his dates below.
“OK,” she said, wondering if in some way she had to approve it.
“It’s in our shop now. They’ll come around later today to attach it,” Cristina repeated. She had put the phone away and was taking the curtain off the opening. “You’ll be able to see it next time you come.”
The niche was plain inside, with a number, stenciled in black, against the back wall. She bent down slightly and put the urn in, exactly in the center. Cristina stood a moment, waiting for her, and then put the curtain back across the niche.
“It’ll look nice, next time you come. They always do a good job.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.” But she was not coming back. Had Jim expected her to? She didn’t think so – it would be pretense, in a relationship that had been so little for so long. Not to mention the risk…Yet he had wanted a niche. Somewhere to be visited. For the first time she felt – well, it was not grief exactly, she had not really known Jim well enough for that, except in a nostalgic way, a way she refused to indulge in. But a sense of pathos, of leaving the urn behind, of that being all that was left of Jim. Years on the earth, things said and done, and…
As they passed around the other side of the granite block, the man with the silver hair was still there, his head bowed, and again he looked up at her. It occurred to her, just as she passed him, that he had been in a completely different place, down at the other end of the block, when she had seen him before.
Her heart began to beat fast. She tried not to look back at him, to keep her face turned away, but she glanced back once, and he was now following them, as they walked down the road, keeping his distance, fifty feet or so behind them. She looked back at Cristina, taking deep breaths, trying to keep her heart steady.
“Have you lived in Las Vegas long?” Cristina asked. She was walking with less speed and determination, ready, now that the difficult part of her job was over, to ask the usual questions people here asked of each other.
“Almost twenty years.” She looked back just a little, the figure still there, blurry in her vision, head down again. That man in the office with Cristina, the one she thought was making a phone call – she had been right after all. She should have left then, Jim or no Jim. Into her mind came the picture she had always had of being arrested, the threats of the FBI men, her defiant answers to their mocking remarks, that there was nothing they could hold her on, send her to jail for, that she did not care.
Cristina was talking about the community she lived in, a well-known one, newish, on the outskirts of town but near the freeway.
“That’s nice,” she said. Anger was burning her chest, she had to remind herself that she had not been arrested yet, had not said those things. “You…you must not have a bad commute, then.”
“No.” Cristina shrugged, pleased. “Twenty minutes. I come in with my daughter. She works here too.”
She tried not to turn her head again. The breeze, from the distant storm, pushed at them, skittered leaves across the path. There was the air of menace that always came before the rain. Even so, it was possible that it was all an illusion, that it might not rain. They were coming to the main office. She was having trouble breathing, not used to walking this much in the heat. Her water bottle, in her car – but she would have to make sure Cristina had gone into the office before she got into the car, so Cristina would not see that she had lied about the bus. This irritated her more than such lies usually did. The man was still behind them, at about the same distance; she scanned around, anxiously, for the other one. They were always in pairs, that was the lore of so many shadowings, chases, suspicions.
Cristina stopped in front of the office.
“I hope you’re happy with what we did for your – friend.”
“Yes, it’s fine. I’m sure – I’m sure he would have been very pleased with it.”
She didn’t move, hoping Cristina would go inside while she waited, that she would not have to walk down the main road in pretense of catching the bus. For so long she had not minded the lying, if anything she had reveled in it; it was a trick played on the world. But she was hot, tired, she felt it was too much to ask, as she was trying to bury Jim, to surround him still in the necessary lies. She did not want to do away with them but she would have liked, somehow, for them to be put aside for a moment. There would be more honor in that than anything that might have been said over the urn and the niche.
“If you need any help next time you come, just stop by the office.”
She smiled, widely, a little desperately. She would never come back.
“Thanks,” she said, stopping herself with an effort from digging her car keys out of her purse. “Thank you for all your help.”
She saw Cristina turn, with relief, waited as she climbed the steps, the glass door flashing open and shut. Then she looked back the way she had come. The silver-haired man was no longer in sight. The storm breeze was bending the trees down, rattling their leaves. She looked around again, across the grass, in all directions. A small funeral party, adults in suits and dresses, children held by the hand, was very distant. An agent might be hiding among them, but he would be too far to catch her before she got to the car. It would have made sense to go to the car now, while she still could, but she preferred to wait and watch, to take in her surroundings, so she could not be grabbed by surprise. This was partly instinct, and also an idea that if she was to be caught she wanted to maintain her dignity. She would put her hands up. They would not be able to say that there was a wild-eyed elderly fugitive causing a standoff in the cemetery.
Nothing happened. She glanced at the office again – the glass door was tinted, so she could not see inside – and then walked towards her car. As she started it, it occurred to her that an FBI agent would probably have not looked at her directly like that, letting her see his face. Still, she drove with as much haste as she could along the meandering entrance drive. Turning into traffic, changing lanes, she felt better. For a few blocks she watched to see that no one was behind her; she turned unnecessarily, once and then again, anyway. In better spirits she began to look for a shopping center, saw one with a Mexican restaurant with outdoor seating at one end, and turned into it. She waited, after parking, watching again for any car following her into the lot, and then took the death certificate from her purse and tore it into small pieces. Carrying the pieces in the palm of her hand she got out and put them in the garbage can of the seating area outside the restaurant, nudging them down the side, underneath the plastic cups and paper bags. In contrast to the scene at the cemetery she felt very powerful, the old feeling that with great care and presence of mind she was keeping something alive. She had stood her ground, all along, for this, for the right to stand outside a shopping center, free. She had peace, or what she thought was peace, and if it had meant carving this peace out of what everyone else called life, she did not think that what anyone else had was necessarily better.
When she got back in the car she sat for a few minutes, gulping water, letting the air conditioning blow on her face. She had intended, after leaving Jim at the cemetery, to go to church, and there was still time; all this fuss, somehow, had not lasted as long as she thought. The church she went to was small, part of a denomination that was familiar but that she did not know much else about. She thought she had begun going because of past memories of churches which offered meeting spaces in their basements, meals in soup kitchens, a place to sleep, when she had nowhere else, one of an army of dropouts and runaways roaming California. God is Love posters on the walls, and no judgement offered. As at the meditation center, the people there smiled, asked modest questions about her job and her dog; she liked this too, and this might have been why she kept going. She did not go every Sunday, was not even – she thought – a member, though she was not sure what made you a member or not; it was not that kind of church, where they kept tabs on you.
She backed out and turned into the flow of traffic. It had not rained after all; the clouds had drifted off, the sun was out again, a breeze blowing the flags in front of an apartment complex across the street. She was aware of a kind of intensity to everything around her, of seeing things with a peculiar poignancy, as if the basic idea behind existence, good and bad, true and false, could not be more clearly spelled out, had she wanted to see it, a feeling of being pushed along, neither happy nor sad, justified nor desolate, but alive in a way that could hardly be understood, because she did not know how to understand it. She waited to make a left turn. There were cars coming both ways; she was impatient, suddenly, and pulled out into the traffic, gunning the car, as the car she had cut off honked angrily. She was mystified, she did not know why she had done such a risky thing – the car barreling towards her – it did not seem to accord with her newfound sense of life as something meaningful.
The church was fairly new, sat on its own property; trees, still too small for shade, along the front walk. Inside she was handed a bulletin; she stood for a moment with it in the narthex, feeling the air conditioning, thinking that it would be dark, inside the church, she would be able to sit and consider. She wanted to do that. And there would be music too, she would sit and listen to it. Someone touched her arm. She turned and saw Frankie, the wife of the man who had given her the bulletin – they were two of the people whom she actually knew in the church.
“How are you, Liz?”
“Fine.” She felt for a moment she ought to explain something – why she hadn’t been recently, why she was here today. But Frankie had already said:
“I’m so sorry to ask, but I wonder if you could do me a favor.”
“Elaine just texted me that she’s sick and can’t do nursery. Do you think you could? I know you’ve done it before.”
“I –” She had done nursery once, maybe a year ago, in some similar crisis. Part of her had thought it was funny, imagining what the parents of the children might say if they knew about her past.
“Please, please, I know it’s short notice –” Frankie was bending forward, screwing up her face, begging, dramatic. “I wouldn’t ask except –”
“It’s all right.” She said this almost without thinking, just from not wanting to see Frankie beg.
“Oh, thank you so, so much. You’re truly an angel.” Frankie hurried her down the hall towards the nursery. The thought of her past occurred to her again, also the assumption that as an older woman, as the sort of person she appeared to be, she must be qualified for this kind of thing. Surely she had grandchildren.
“If I can get away I’ll come down to help, all right?” Frankie called, as she left. She recalled that Frankie had some important position in the church – though she did not understand what exactly. Something that included finding nursery volunteers on short notice. She doubted she would come back.
The nursery had child-sized furniture, a small table with several puzzles on it, a bookcase along the wall. There was a girl of two or three in the room already, digging in a toy bin. As she stood there a woman brought a baby in, the father behind her with the carrier. The woman offered the baby and she took it in her arms. She had not held a baby for years. Nor had she realized she was going to be here alone. Last time there had been someone with her, some sort of regular nursery person (Elaine, perhaps); all she had really done was sit there.
The room was dark, the blinds shut against the sun. It was quiet. She sat down with the baby on a rocking chair. Well, even here she would be able to sit; she could recapture the way she had felt in the car. It was still there, underneath, a sort of rolling calmness, coating the world. She eased the baby off her knee, put him on the floor; he crawled a few steps. The girl who had been digging in the toy bin came up to her, holding a puzzle with pieces missing. She took the puzzle from the girl, unsure what to say, what was wanted from her.
“It looks like some of the pieces fell out,” she said.
The girl stared at her. “Yes, some of the pieces fell out.”
“Yes.” It seemed like a bizarre conversation. The puzzle showed a farmyard scene, the farmer chewing on a piece of hay.
The girl said, very quickly, stumbling over her words, starting over again in the middle of the sentence:
“I wore new shoes today. Because I’m a big girl – I’m a big girl – I can wear these shoes now.”
She looked at the shoes, sandals with white flowers, trying to think of what she would say to an adult in this situation, what a child might expect.
The girl stared at her, as she had before. “Yes, they’re pretty,” she repeated.
The baby had crawled back over, was putting his hands on her leg. She reached down and he pulled himself up against her knee. She touched the sparse hair on his head, brushing the thin strands back, thinking that he did not look like Charlie. Charlie had had dark hair, a rounder head, bright blue eyes. He had been only a few months old when she had been arrested. The state had removed him, because of the possession charge; it was supposed to be temporary, pending a hearing, but then she had jumped bail and fled. She supposed he had been put into foster care, adopted, unless Erik’s family had taken him in.
She still remembered the feeling of him in her arms, when he was first born, the flushed dampness, the solidity of his body. But she had also been afraid of him. He would change her, she would no longer be committed to the group, to her ideals, even if this did not happen, she would not have time: loving him, in the long run, would only hurt her. That, and the impossibility of ever looking for him, had kept her from thinking much about him; it had always been easier, since he had been hers for only a few months, to shut it all out of her mind. But his face was there, when she looked at this baby, never forgotten, a ghostly image, just like the girl she had almost shot.
The little girl had returned, holding a toy cell phone of red plastic, large, like cell phones had been years ago.
“That’s a phone,” she said, thinking the girl might not recognize it.
“It’s a phone.”
Perhaps this was how children talked, this kind of repeating. She would not know. She could not understand it. She had enough trouble thinking of what to say to adults; children were impossible. The baby, leaning on her, was drooling on her skirt. This was a world she could not enter. That was all right; she had always known she did not belong to it. And her feeling over this was like her feeling in the car, the feeling of seeing the world in a way she did not understand. It was, she supposed, that she did not know what was going to happen to her, did not know anything at all about what came next. She saw that there was freedom in this, and that it was not the freedom she thought that being underground had always brought her, her freedom of repressing, lying, diverting the truth. It was something else. She thought of herself tearing up the death certificate and she wanted to laugh now. And the FBI men at the cemetery, hiding behind trees. Surely she would never imagine that again. They were not there, they were not really after her, no one was.
She turned this thought around, pleased with it, whether it was true or not, thinking also how worthless it had all been, and yet she was proud of herself too, for having followed the path for so long, being so loyal. She had not complained, she had not lied to herself, though she had been loyal to something worthless. And this was her reward, now that she was no longer afraid, that if there were worlds she could not enter, things she could not do, she accepted this, she knew why. She was not outcast; she just had not earned it. For so many years she had told herself a story, explained things, created things. Now there was no story, there was only her life, which had been in many ways ugly, futile, misguided. But it was her life. It was here, with the air conditioning blowing the blinds, the silence of the room. The baby fell down again. She put out her hand, let him wrap his fingers around hers, reminding herself that he would do this with anybody, that children trusted everyone. Then she picked him back up and put him on her knee, settling back in the chair, trying to make them both comfortable, as she held him.
Laura Canon was born in Lexington, KY (USA), and has a BFA from New York University. She currently lives in Henderson, NV (USA), and is a writer of young adult fiction. She had been previously published in Jersey Devil Press and the Blue Lake Review.