Saturday, September 15, 2018

'Salix Sepulcralis'--third of three short stories by TAS

(III) Salix Sepulcralis

Sharon would have been appalled by the sheer ordinariness of her death. It was all so badly staged.
There was no poetry in it, no melodrama or mystery. The Grim Reaper had not waited for the shattering three-hanky climax of a La Traviata or a La Bohème to step onto the stage, making his vaunted cameo with a dark flourish. Sharon had not warbled away the first two acts like Violetta or Mimi, the tragic center of attention bravely denying her piteous fate, slowly fading, if barely consumed, by consumption. No family or friends had gathered about a deathbed strewn with roses—Sharon would have adored that particular detail. No penitent lover wept upon her bosom or took her dying breath into himself with one final passionate pledge.
She had simply ‘dropped dead’ one afternoon, the way just-plain folks so often do, without fuss or fanfare. One moment she was standing in front of her kitchen sink, drying dishes, talking and laughing with one of her chums on the phone. The next she was lying lifeless on the faux-marble tile, surrounded by broken shards of heirloom china. This supernaturally youthful, magically intriguing woman with three or perhaps even four dazzling decades ahead of her had become, virtually in the blink of an eye, an unextraordinary mass of diverse necrotic tissues turning to mush on the embalming table, this soul that had so longed to sing, reduced to a voiceless assortment of cells in random, untidy decay.
No explanation had been forthcoming beyond some nebulous pronouncement of ‘natural causes,’ a verdict that satisfied no one and only inspired the sort of cruel gossip Sharon herself had thrived on in life. ‘Still,’ people said, ‘such a tragedy! She was so young! How could God be so uncaring—so capricious? Why would He do this? Especially to someone so well-liked and popular—so righteous and upstanding? The heavens, as ever, were stolidly silent, and Sharon (née Chance) Kennedy-Sweet-Street-Withers-McDonald had been buried on what would have been her 55th birthday under the lowering slate-gray sky of a snowless Iowa February.
“You were at the committal service,” her daughter said. “I saw you—”
True. I’d paid my respects from a discreet distance, standing, hat over heart, in the naked willow grove that etched the borders of the Chance family burying ground, itself a flat, dreary acre, five miles beyond town, shadeless in summer, ever open to the wind—one might as easily have planted corn there as corpses. I watched the old rock-ribbed country preacher saying his semi-literate piece over the tasteless gunmetal casket—knowing her people, it had been open full-length during the service at the poky white-frame church back in town—watched and witnessed the assembled mourners bowing their heads in solemn unison to mumble the Lord’s Prayer—words that I had given up long ago.
“It’s like I told you, honey, Sharon and I were friends once upon a time.”
“But you were there?”
“I had my reasons.”
“Which were?”
My reasons.”
“Why didn’t you come over and say something? To Dad? To me and Ash?”
“I didn’t think it would be appropriate. I’d been out of your mom’s life for so long.”
“That sounds like an excuse—”
“As opposed to what? I don’t owe you an explanation.”
“I know. But I was hoping—”
What? To hear me confess that I absolutely hate funerals? All that unfocused emotion, and everybody’s suddenly manic depressive, laughing one minute, weeping uncontrollably the next. People are impossibly raw-nerved or cataleptically numb, both at once more often than not, and everybody’s miserable. Irrationality becomes contagious, and it’s far too easy to say things one shouldn’t.
“I didn’t want to make a scene, that’s all.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “We all deal in our own way.”
Yes, my sweet, nubile nymph, and we all want our death to mean something. We want it to be a kind of eloquent summation of our life no matter how badly we may have screwed it up, our passing from it deeply dignified, poignant and powerful, with the people we love most hovering around us, straining to catch our final words, something glorious, pithy, true, and wise, a perfect aphorism that will echo down the ages, as if, somehow, we could stage manage our own legacy for all time. We want death to make us famous, even if we never had a claim to it in life, our funeral an elaborate media event, televised live around the world for all our inconsolable fans to share in real time.
“When were you friends with her?” she asked.
“Your mom was 39 when we met—”
“I would have been 5.”
“That’s right. I was nine years older than Sharon. We were... close for about three years.”
“What attracted you to each other?”
“Shared interests—fine art, music, culture—”
And sex, of course—that most common of common interests—there was a lot of that, too.
“—you knew she was something of a frustrated artist?” And, for much of her life, a frustrated mother as well. She dreamed of buying some grand old Victorian mansion in the city, filling it up with fine antiques and perfect children—a Currier and Ives Christmas card come to life. She wanted to throw lavish parties with expensive champagne and caviar and string quartet music to accompany the kind of brilliant conversations you hear in old movies.
What she ‘got’ was Rory McDonald, a man so obviously beneath her that even his few friends scratched their heads in utter disbelief. I gleefully cuckolded that hapless hayseed without ever giving much thought to anything beyond my own enjoyment of his wife’s stupendously fuckable body. And Sharon had been right there with me every pelvic thrust and earth-shattering climax of the way, my concupiscent co-conspirator, unblushing, blithely brazen, seductively cold-blooded in her spider-like embrace of infidelity, though, in the end, she could never bring herself to leave the fool, whom, for all practical purposes, she’d married as a ‘legitimate’ sperm donor.
One weekend we managed to get away together to Chicago. I’d wrangled tickets to the Lyric Opera’s production of La Bohème and Sharon was over the moon. She’d never looked so heart-stoppingly stunning as she did that evening, stepping from the cab in a long, sequined evening gown with the sort of daring décolletage that would have inspired a month’s worth of disapproving sermons in church back at home. She swept into the Civic Opera House on my arm, a vision in midnight blue, and, for one shining moment, all eyes were upon her and her alone. She herself was far more impressed by the glitter of the audience than the rather sentimental tale of impoverished artists unfolding on the stage—until that moment in the final act when Rodolfo rushes to Mimi’s side only to discover that she is past all hope.
And suddenly Sharon was weeping because it was all so beautiful and there was nothing like that kind of beauty in her ‘real’ life. She was clinging to my arm, burying her head in my chest, trying to muffle her sobs, “Oh Jim! Let’s move to the city! Let’s buy that big house and have a couple more kids of our own! I want this! I want it so badly! I’ll leave him now for sure, I promise! I’ll divorce him and marry you, and we can live happily ever after...”
Back at the hotel that night, making love, she swore through her tears that I was her true soulmate, the only one she’d ever truly loved, the only one who could make her dreams come true...
Brave words, yet I knew she would never follow through. I’d heard the same promises a hundred times before—and what is it they say? You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. For all she longed so fiercely to deny, a part of her was still that simple farmer’s daughter from Iowa, the good girl who never disappointed. And Sharon simply could not bear the disapprobation of her people, could not tear herself away from the world she knew, that place where existence is predictable and safe and certain, a million miles from where real life actually happens. For all her dreams, her gilded hopes and starry-eyed ambitions, Sharon (née Chance) Kennedy-Sweet-Street-Withers-McDonald had simply dropped dead one afternoon, having never truly lived at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment