Jeff Hagerstrand is a career high school teacher, husband and father of six kids.
by Jeff Hagerstrand
Gretchen Halliday smokes her twelfth cigarette of the morning. The women of “The View” snicker and snort on the TV set about lovelorn Hollywood stars. Gretchen listens without interest. The ceiling above her chair where she sits at the breakfast table is stained yellow from nicotine in the shape of a pear, a giant, sick, bumpy, two-dimensional pear. Gretchen sits here in the mornings to watch TV and smoke; dinners are eaten on a TV tray in the living room, near the gas fireplace no one ever uses. Gretchen sucks on the filter and exhales. The smoke billows up to the ceiling, adding another coat of tar.
What to do today? Gretchen wonders, as she does every day. There is nothing pressing on her agenda. Retired the last three years, Gretchen has found fewer and fewer reasons to venture past the mailbox hanging on the wall outside the front door. She has increased the number of channels available on her cable subscription four times now, this last time buying the maximum number available. I could move over to the armchair a bit early, she thinks. Her cigarette is nearly out. Taking the last drag, she feels sudden acute loss and grief overwhelm her. Tears spring to her eyes and the drag becomes a convulsive sob. The smoke chokes her and she coughs violently. Blood rushes to her face and neck as she hacks again and again with her whole body. When she finishes, nearly a minute later, her body continues to shudder uncontrollably, exhausted from the effort.
She sits back, eyes blurry. There is a commercial for toilet paper on. The grief, so intense just moments before, is gone. She is empty. She slumps down in the vinyl chair, her pants making a farting sound as she slides forward. The inside of her fore and middle fingers suddenly burn; she is still holding the lit cigarette. She stumps it out.
Her fingers are painfully singed. She gets up to find some salve but cannot. She runs her fingers under cool tap water in the sink. “Goddamn it,” she says aloud, then lights another cigarette.
When she sits back at the breakfast table, the TV goes blank and the lights go out. Power outage. Her TV screen reflection is distorted, dark, shadowy. Her hair is scraggly and unkempt, a sort of blond-gray explosion. She touches it. She has always hated her hair. It is thick like a horse’s tail. Lovers have never enjoyed petting her hair, or running their fingers through it, or even grabbing onto it as they fucked her from behind. Not that there were that many lovers, she broods. Larry, Fedor the Latvian mailroom boy, and Henry McCallahan. That charming Henry. So good at everything, so admired.
Oh yes, and Frank. She shouldn’t leave out her husband Frank. God rest his soul thank God he’s dead.
She wanders into the bathroom and pees. She rubs her sagging cheeks, pulls on her floppy neck wattle. Life ends in slow declension, she thinks. Her chest has wrinkles and strange little lumps, like someone is hiding little packets of Jell-O under her flesh when she’s not looking. She begins undressing on the toilet. Her nipples point down, almost invisible without turning them up. Thighs thick and lumpy, gray pubic hair, vericose veins running like broken tributaries down her legs to her papery skinned feet. Her body is tearing itself to pieces. “Ah, Henry, if you could see me now,” she whispers.
The grief suddenly comes back, so powerful that she puts out a hand to brace herself against the wall. The tears pour out and she cries silently. She touches her lips. They are dead, limp, rubbery. She imagines Henry kissing her, cupping her left breast through her one-piece bathing suit in the warm sun on the beach blanket. She can picture it, but it is happening to someone else. She can spectate but not participate. She cries out in frustration, in horror.
Antoinette. Beautiful, prime, long sleek blond hair, da Vinci face, porcelain skin, draped in complementary fashions. Gretchen is proud and viciously jealous in one twisted moment. I love her I hate her I love her Goddamn her. “Get out,” she manages.
“Mom, are you ok?” Antoinette is hesitant, her hand on the doorknob.
“OUT!” Gretchen screams. She grabs the first thing she sees and hurls it at her daughter. It strikes Antoinette in her right eye and thunks to the ground: a new bar of soap.
“Fuck! Jesus, mom!” Antoinette looks at herself in the mirror. Her eyebrow already sports an angry purple spot, which slowly spreads as they watch it. “What the hell is the matter with you?”
Gretchen walks out. She takes her longest coat from the front closet, slips on sandals and mashes a sun hat over her spiky hair, and exits the apartment quietly.
She is halfway to the park when laughter catches up to her. The whole scene is suddenly uproariously funny to her and for the second time this morning she is putting her whole body into convulsions, this time from joy. As she recovers, the light seems brighter, the colors more vivid, sounds resonate as though they had been muted until now. She is naked under her coat. The secrecy of it thrills her. The city bus is pulling into the stop at the end of the block. “Wait!” she shrieks, flailing one arm. She hustles up the sidewalk at a skip-trot, trying to hurry and not lose the sandals at the same time.
“You a damn sight, lady,” the bus driver greets her. He has midnight black skin stretched tight over a hatchet nose. His white teeth gleam in his smile.
Gretchen fishes in the coat pockets and comes up empty. “That’s alright,” the driver says. “You have a seat now.”
Antoinette dumps into the sink the melting ice cubes from the dishtowel she had been holding to her forehead. “What the fuck!” she says for the umpteenth time. She turns to the kitchen table, where her mother’s cigarette sits askance in the ashtray, burned to a column of ash. She dumps the ashtray and rinses it out, setting it in the sink. She picks the phone off the receiver and dials.
“Jeremy? It’s Toni. Mom’s taken off again. I don’t know. She hit me in the face with a bar of soap. Yeah, soap. It fucking hurt, too. Yeah, okay. Okay. Bye.”
Gretchen trudges up the immaculately pruned Rose Walk of Wreath Haven Mortuary and Burial Grounds, sneezing periodically from the pollen laden foliage. Her sinuses clogged, she is mouth breathing heavily, her smoker’s lungs protesting with each breath.
Sweaty and wheezing, she arrives at the hilltop and makes her way to an unassuming headstone amidst a sea of identical grave markers. She collapses to her knees in front of it. It takes her a long time to get her breathing under control, and the day turns old while she waits. Wispy clouds crowd the slanting sunlight. A cool breeze blows through the gaps in her overcoat, chilling her. Finally, she looks directly at the headstone.
“Francis Beauregard Halliday. Beloved father and husband.” Her voice surprises her. It croaks out the name. It is as though she is listening to herself for the first time. That’s not my voice, she thinks.
“Beloved father and husband.” Like a goddamn toad. Is that how I sound?
She shrugs. So my voice is running down, like the rest of me. “Listen here, Frank,” she croaks. “You put food on the table and a roof over our heads. You died flat broke. You fucked around on me every chance you got. You were a lousy father. You tried to fuck my sister. You were nothing but a goddamn brute and bastard every day I knew you.”
It comes out naturally, like vomiting.
She stands up and takes off her sandals. Hiking her overcoat up over her hips, she steps one foot over the headstone so that she is straddling it, her bare crotch inches above the concrete top. She closes her eyes, tilts her face into the sun, and pees.
“I piss on your grave, Frank.”
Jeremy meets her in the parking lot of the police station.
“She was doing what?”
“Dancing on dad’s grave.”
“Really?” This stops Jeremy as they are walking in. “How do they . . . who saw her dancing?”
Antoinette shrugs. “Maybe it’s Alzheimer’s. Maybe she’s gone crazy. Or has dementia. All she’s done for three years is watch TV and smoke. Then today, she’s naked throwing lady.”
“Oh yeah, how’s the forehead?”
Inside, Gretchen sits patiently in the waiting area. Officer Garcia explains that Wreath Haven Mortuary and Burial Grounds doesn’t want to make a complaint against their mother, but they asked that future visits be with an appropriate escort. Also, there would be no urinating in public citation issued.
“She peed? In the cemetery?” Antoinette is embarrassed.
“Yes ma’am. On the grave marker, according to the assistant manager.”
“Oh my God.”
“Not to worry, ma’am. Old-timers sometimes get, you know, confused about where they are.” Officer Garcia hands her his card. “If you have any questions, please feel free to give me a call. Anytime, really, Mrs. . . ?”
“It’s Miss. Actually, it’s Toni.”
“That number’s a direct line, ma’am. You folks have a good night.”
“Jesus.” This from Jeremy, under his breath, as they turn away.
The walk to the car is silent. Gretchen is put in the front passenger seat and buckled in, like a toddler. As Jeremy pulls out of the parking lot, Antoinette starts in.
“Jesus Christ, mom, what the hell is going on? The cops say you pissed on dad’s grave? Is that true? Is it? And what about –”
“Not now, Toni. Get on the freeway here.” She indicates a freeway sign to Jeremy. He looks at her for a long moment. The sun hat, the wild hair. The overcoat, which now covers police trainee sweats. The set of her mouth. The look in her eye. He decides.
“Where’re we going, mom?”
“What? Don’t listen to her! Don’t indulge her, for Christ’s sake!”
“Quiet, Toni,” Gretchen and Jeremy say together.
“Just take the freeway for me, would you?”
On the drive, the grief pounds her again, oceanic waves of crushing pain. Her heart swells to bursting and caves in, over and over again. The world rushes away from her, and it is from the end of a long dark tunnel that she hears:
“Mom? Are you crying? What’s wrong?”
Then it passes, as suddenly as it came. She fumbles in the pockets of the coat for her cigarettes and comes up empty. It occurs to her that she hasn’t smoked since she left the house.
“Funny.” She says this out loud. Jeremy and Antoinette look at each other in the rearview mirror. Gretchen sees the look. “Either of you two got a cigarette on you?” Her voice is still unrecognizable to her.
“I quit last week.”
“I don’t smoke, mom. For Chrissakes.”
“Don’t be a quitter, kid.” Gretchen pulls the ashtray open and sifts through the butts. There is a stubbed out half-cigarette. Gretchen punches in the electric lighter and cracks her window.
“Do you have to smoke, mom?”
Gretchen turns around and stares directly into her daughter’s pretty blue eyes.
“I’d like to see you find someone to love who loves you back. I’d like to think that all those years I spent teaching you not to whine – that’s right, little miss thinks she’s so goddamn clever, you are a whiner I’d like to think that those years paid off. I’d like to see you be a mother, because I think you’re going to be a great mother. Better than I was. Now, be a good girl, and shut up.”
The lighter pops out. Gretchen smiles, a real smile, natural, and for a rare moment Antoinette sees her mother as beautiful. This must be what she looked like when she was young. The thought has never occurred to her before. Then Gretchen turns and lights her cigarette, and the old woman is back.
“Why were you crying, mom?” Jeremy waits. Gretchen smokes. “Do you want to tell us what’s going on?”
The crescent moon is rising behind them as they pull into the Pacific Ocean overlook and park. “Wait here,” Gretchen orders, and gets out.
“Where are we?”
“Somewhere between Monterrey and, I don’t know, Big Sur?”
“I don’t know. What’s she doing?”
“Standing by the wall. I don’t know. She’s just standing there.”
They are silent. Antoinette shifts around. “This car is small. It’s uncomfortable back here.”
“Why don’t you stretch out?”
“Then I can’t wear a seat belt.”
“Then don’t wear a seat belt.”
“That wouldn’t be safe.”
“Then don’t complain. Wait. Are you saying I’m not a good driver?”
“No, you’re a great driver.”
“Don’t be sarcas –”
“Holy shit!” Toni sits bolt upright. “You don’t think she’s going to—”
“What? No! I mean, she wouldn’t…”
They look at each other. A second later the car doors fly open and they are racing toward Gretchen.
“Mom! Don’t do it!”
They are yelling and waving their arms. When they reach her, they each clutch an arm.
“What the hell is the matter with the two of you?” They are panting, breathless. “I’m not suicidal. Well, not today, anyway.”
They stand there together, children holding mother’s hands, looking out at the ocean. It occurs to both children that this is the first time since they were very small that they stood this way with their mother. It quiets them to think this, and they both stay very still to preserve the moment as long as they can.
Gretchen, however, is elsewhere. She is 23 and in love with Henry, who has just parked his Lincoln Continental at the Highway One mile 287 viewing point and is currently working one of his hands up her left inner thigh and undoing the clasp on her bra with the other. Gretchen is resisting none of this, because since she met Henry she has walked on air. She has smiled cramps into her cheeks, and she can’t help it. He is wonderful. He makes her feel wonderful. Life is wonderful, wonderful everything.
She drops their hands. “Okay kids, let’s go.”
La Bonne Vie Retirement Community is the dingiest of rest homes. The wallpaper is yellowed like the nicotine stain on Gretchen’s ceiling. The popcorned ceilings are too low, and too many of the light fixtures are missing, so that naked fluorescent light is everywhere. The carpets are worn and stained. Residents—old, old people—litter the hallways like bums on a street. Mismatched inmate pajama sets and knit robes hang on bony frames that wobble and inch about on walkers and in wheelchairs. There is wheezing and coughing and the drone of medical machines filling the air everywhere. The smell, ammonia and peroxide masking shit and death.
Jeremy and Antoinette have given up asking questions. They tag along behind Gretchen. Jeremy, who dresses like Kurt Cobain, on purpose, tries to be cool with all the sickness and dying around him. He looks extremely uncomfortable. Antoinette doesn’t hide her horror. She covers her mouth and nose with a scarf and tries not to touch anything or anyone, including the floor, tiptoeing after her mother and brother.
Gretchen stops at room 193. “You two need to wait here.”
“Whose room is this?”
Gretchen turns and enters the room. She closes the door behind her.
“H. McCallahan,” Jeremy reads off the name card next to the door. “Who’s that?”
Henry’s bed sits next to an impressive array of modern medical technology. Tubes run between Henry and the machines, keeping Henry alive, breathing for him, feeding him, disposing of his waste. They seem to have formed a mutually interdependent relationship.
Gretchen sits down next to Henry and squeezes his skeletal hand. The thrill of his touch is long gone.
“That night,” she whispers. “That night…”
That night she needs to pee. Just as he’s getting his pants off and they’re pawing each other, she has to pee. She jumps out and squats near the back tire. Henry leans into the emergency brake release, whether in frustration or anticipation, Gretchen never finds out. The back tires roll off the cliff before Henry can stomp on the brake, and then it’s too late. The Lincoln slides slowly backwards off the edge. Henry jiggles at his door handle, realizes it’s locked, reaches up to unlock it, gets the door open, and then the car tips up and disappears out of sight. There is a long quiet, broken suddenly by the horrifying crunch of automobile smashing into rocks.
“I’m sorry,” Gretchen says.
In the ambulance. On the way to the hospital. You begged me.
“I couldn’t. I couldn’t.” Her voice cracks.
Don’t let them, you said. You woke up and looked at me.
Her voice steadies. “And you said don’t let them. You said I don’t want to be a vegetable.”
She isn’t crying when she barricades the door by shoving a plastic chair against the door handle. She isn’t crying when she unplugs the machines. She isn’t crying when she kisses Henry’s forehead. She can feel the grief again, but lifting this time. She sighs, and lies down next to Henry. They find her asleep next to his corpse when they finally get through the door.
For the second time in a week, Gretchen walks out of police custody and into the custody of her grown children. Her court appointed attorney, a young man who has experience handling murder cases, gets the charge reduced to manslaughter in exchange for Gretchen’s guilty plea. She stands up when the judge addresses her. Gone are the cyclical grief tsunamis; gone even is the underlying tension that another one could hit her any minute.
Manslaughter. Conviction carries with it a mandatory seven year sentence. Antoinette and Jeremy keep emphasizing that, according to her attorney, with good behavior she could be out in three years, maybe fewer. Gretchen, her pain at rest, smiles kindly at her anxious children. “It’s going to be just fine now,” she tells them, exhaling the delicious first drag of her afternoon cigarette.
Copyright 2019 by Jeff Hagerstrand