Who made the coffee? I wondered as I sat at my mom’s whitewashed pine table. Even without its leaves inserted, the table felt too large for the narrow dining area wedged between the kitchen and the laundry room in the house my mom had been renting for eight years. Next to me, in one of the high-backed dining chairs, my younger sister Jenny sat on my mom’s lap, the two of them crumpled together, sobbing. My dad sat across from me, sipping coffee, black. It was the first time he’d been inside that house. My mom moved there after their divorce had finalized, and neither he nor the table looked like they had been sized to fit such a low-ceilinged room. ___________________________________________ MELISSA SELEY is a writer based in New York. Her literary essay “Indulge Me” was recently published alongside works by writers such as William Carlos Williams and Raymond Carver in a 50th Anniversary edition of Spectrum, a Southern California-based journal. Essays have been published in literary journals including H.O.W. Journal and MARY. Interviews and profiles have appeared in numerous print and online magazines including BOMB online, Paper, Tokion, Gastronomica and The Last Magazine. She is a 2010-2011 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Writer-in-Residence, and is the co-founder, with Kate Sennert, of Ess Ess, a reading series aimed at pluralism. http://www.melissaseley.com
No one else had come yet. I’d poured the coffee into mugs from my mom’s cupboard collection; wide, round, and flat-bottomed cups, painted with roses and posies, the one my dad held screened with a chain of ducks wandering past a pond. He squinted through me as though to scan my thoughts or to look out to something vague behind me beyond the sliding glass doors.
At some point, Jenny moved to another chair. My mom said she wanted to get a hold of Father Vaughn. Jenny widened her eyes. I kept a poker face. Father Vaughn: Headmaster at St. Michael’s Episcopal Day School. My dad: An atheist and antisocial, thereby doubly not a fan of clubby St. Michael’s or of Father Vaughn. We kids had been yanked out of the Episcopal school when I was eleven, causing scandal in the neighborhood where I grew up, and where my mom still lived, called the Garden of the Gods. My dad had removed us in reaction to Father Vaughn’s expulsion of my older brother Jeff in the sixth grade for applying Sex Wax to his buzz cut. The Sex Wax Jeff had brought back from our family trip to Hawaii. My mom was raised Baptist. None of us had been to church for at least a decade. Now, we were gathered in her house because Jeff was dead. He had died the night prior, at age 29, in a freak accident.
My dad acquiesced. The two of them glanced at me, as though for approval. I’m the oldest child now. The realization typed itself across my head.
In a clear and businesslike voice not quite my own I said I figured Father Vaughn would be easy to get a hold of and that he was probably in his office that very moment. “I could probably walk over there if I needed to,” I added, thinking as I said it that though it was probably factually correct, it would also be out of line—to show up at Father Vaughn’s door on the morning of Jeff’s death, in my state, in whatever state I was in. You could hardly tell, except that my jaw felt as though someone had over-tightened the screws at its hinges.
My mom was looking at me a little starry-eyed. She seemed to see me for the first time that morning, it was as if I had instantly materialized in the chair like a Star Wars hologram. In a voice muted relief at the sight of me, a voice I’d heard often enough, walking through the front door for the weekend after months away, she thanked me.
Jenny let out a low wail, breathing in. “Oh no,” she whimpered. “Oh no no no no.” Her eyes were closed, her face, damp and flush, turned up to the plastered ceiling. She was twenty-two years old. I was twenty-six.
People began pouring into the dim house carrying things: Pyrex dishes of lasagna and eggplant parmesan, tubs of KFC, towers of paper plates and other useful things—ice chests, serving spoons, boxes of Kleenex, embroidered handkerchiefs from Mexico, photos, catering menus, toilet paper when we ran out, a tool box, and booze.
Many of the mourners were Garden of the Gods relics. There was red-haired Mary, mother of Sara, also red-haired, a girl my age with severe Down’s Syndrome. Mornings Mary and Sara traversed the loop of the neighborhood, Sara stumbling, Mary striding boldly in a wide straw hat, her shoulders pushed back, strong hands gesturing this and that to Sara. “Mean Mother Mary” we called her as kids. She was the secretary at St. Michael’s with a rep for ratting kids out. Standing in a shady patch on my mom’s cement patio one of the afternoons that week, Mary admitted she got a kick out of it: “Oh, how you guys despised me!” she said with a chuckle, brandishing a popped can of Budweiser.
The night before Jeff’s service, after Mary had loaded all the dishes back into the fridge and sponged down the counter, she stood in the entryway holding her keys, poised to leave. “Girls,” she said to my mom, Jenny and me, “If you want, I’ll sit out on that porch all morning long and turn people away. I’ll be Mean Mother Mary, you know I don’t give a damn.”
Mean Mother Mary, being a secretary, took charge of the business side of Jeff’s death. Important phone numbers—the mortuary’s, St. Michael’s, Dennis’s cell phone, Porter Scott’s—Jeff’s old law firm’s—she scrawled on a whiteboard above the phone. Questions and replies, menus, contracts, she kept in a banded folio. Several times a day I met with Mary on the denim couch in the family room and on the linen couch in the living room in front of the bay window.
Both in admiration and pity, both to me and to other people, when they knew I was listening and when they thought I wasn’t, Mary and the other G.O.G. mothers talked about my fortitude. Hovering in the doorway of my bedroom en route to the bathroom, late the second night, I heard them whispering in the kitchen. “Poor thing, she’s bottled it all up,” Harriett Henderson, my godmother, the first truly elegant woman I ever knew, said.
“It’s not healthy, she’s got to let it out,” another one sighed. “If only her dad would step up to the plate and be a father for once, maybe she wouldn’t have to carry so much of the brunt of it.” I took a chance at being seen and peeked out–this was Mrs. K, a twiggy aerobics buff who loaded up her skinny arms with jangly charm bracelets, spiky coral wristlets and braided metal cuffs.
“Actually, I’m pretty shocked at how good he’s been with all us ladies here,” Mary said. “He must have spent a fortune on all those deli trays at Raley’s.”
“He’s trying in his way I guess,” Mrs. K said, peering into the fridge, balancing a plate of chicken wings. “I mean, sure he is. But all my credit goes to his daughter, she’s been such a rock, and you know she’s doing it all for Mom.”
“I think we can all agree on that,” Mary said.
I may have actually, physically, rolled my eyes.
The wave of thoughtfulness coming from neighbors and strangers, godmothers and mothers, priests and children, childhood friends, high school teachers, ex-boyfriends and my parents’ coworkers was a vital force in the house that week. But like the questions that had to be answered, the presence of these sympathetic beings, when the hard fact of why they stood on the diamond patterned linoleum floor of my mom’s kitchen late at night while we were sleeping, when exposed, was cruel.
By doing it all, Mrs. Henderson meant making decisions. I began to think of myself as The Rock, a being with answers. Chrysanthemums or roses at the altar? Who do you want to sit in the front row? Do you think your Dad wants to pay up front or later? Has anyone arranged for linen rentals? Where do you want to hold the service? If the reception’s going to be at St. Michael’s, do you want to do a buffet in the auditorium and a makeshift bar in the courtyard so people can mingle? A soft bar, right, just wine and beer? Will it be open casket? Do you want Father Vaughn to make a blessing? Who should donations be made out to? Are you all going to ride together in one car or separately? Despite the hesitancy over making decisions and the constant state of deliberation in which I have found myself throughout my life, that week I answered queries empty of any careful consideration.
One of the luxuries of being in shock is that you wake up to the extreme privacy of your mind. No one else has a clue what’s going on in here I began to realize. And I can’t even tell them! I don’t know how, there’s no point in trying! Example: the coffee. Since sitting at the table that first morning I’d been considering the quandary of who had made the coffee. My sister had still couldn’t quite remember how one boiled water for spaghetti, with oil or salt? My mom, in her state, couldn’t have handled anything so fiddly, measured out the grounds, snapped the filter into place. Who then, in that hour before my dad and I arrived, had put the pot on to brew?
I suppose a psychologist might say I was avoiding a terrible reality I couldn’t accept by focusing on a physical object and creating a story around it, a mechanism I adopted as a child. What made sense to me, sitting at that table, the only thing that made sense, was that there was a presence in the room who’d arrived before the sun was up, shortly after Jeff’s midnight death, to tend to us.
She was the hostess of an alternate gathering. Company was coming. Soon the guests would arrive. Because I had recognized her, she and I were in communion. Standing side by side at a black and white tiled counter in a well-lit kitchen, below a hanging rack of gleaming copper pots, she and I folded cornflower blue linen napkins into swans, slipping into the soothing rhythm of the chore, creasing the starched cloth with our hands.
A ghost. She was with me that week, though I never saw her; even in my mind she was invisible. The word ghost never occurred to me nor did the word imaginary. She existed, as comforting and consuming as a great novel. The mourners arriving, the phone calls and flower deliveries, the writing of the obituary, questions about transporting Jeff’s body by train or airplane, questions about baguettes vs. rolls and tri-tip vs. chicken at the reception were buzzing flies zipping over the top of a pond, occasionally dipping their wispy legs in the water. Shoo flies, I swatted, ministering to these formalities with the minimum engagement.
The ghost didn’t speak. Her questions were round and open; I discerned them in shapes. Like an astute hostess, she wanted to be acquainted with Jeff’s preferences. There should be lights on, I figured, and a porch, wide, wooden, at dusk. His heaven. Even as a child, I never subscribed to God or to heaven, but there I was, fabricating one, assuming I was simply lending the ghost a hand. All week long I worked at imagining it: a porch on a bayou at dusk, fireflies flitting over the murky water and lanterns flickering in the hand-like branches, cracked and spindly, of massive oak trees, the click and whir of bugs sounding across the water, a rocking chair, worn, he could settle into with a tallboy mint julep or a tumbler of scotch, and swarthy old men in rockers to trade stories with: football fans, history buffs, war veterans, lifelong bartenders, Little League coaches. It was I see, looking at it now, a hybrid of the back porch at our family’s second house on Quail Haven Lane and the set of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.
Jeff’s voice also hung out in the cave of my brain. It ran constantly and so loudly I rarely heard the voices of the living, the targets of his remarks. Who the fuck are all these people? I don’t even know these friends of Mom’s, nor do I want to. What kind of a name is Pola anyway? Where in the world did Mom fetch her from? The checkout line at Target? Ahh, that’s nice—the Franklins. Has Brian come out of the closet yet? No, seriously though, I do like them, I always liked those Christmas cards they sent, the “year in our life” approach, their successes, summer trips and graduations summed up in a cheeky letter. Ok Hoover, that’s enough pal – enough “comforting”. What? Do you really think he’s grieving? You think he’s hugging you out of sympathy? Come on! He’s trying to get in your pants. Guys are horny, end of story, that’s the golden rule. Jesus, did I teach you nothing? Show me your best bullshit face. Put in on for Mrs. Conkle, for me, I know you’ve got one. You think you don’t? You think I was the only bullshitter? You hate me, don’t you? You think I’m an egotistical bullshitting show-off. You’re right. Listen, we’re all mixed up, Honey. That’s the thing. Go on out back for a few minutes if you need to. Yeah, that’s it. Take a seat. Sidle up next to one of those garbage cans. No one’ll guess you’re over here. Unless they know what a freak you are–Oscaretta the European Grouch! You’re safe for now, at least until Mean Old Mother Mary comes calling with her clipboard. Hoo hoo hoo, he laughed, his hillbilly laugh.
The Rock got good at butler. I refined my door-answering technique. On the second morning, I was sitting on the linen couch where I was flipping through Jeff’s Whitman and Langston Hughes books looking for a quote for his obituary, when I saw Father Vaughn pull up out front. “He’s here,” I called out, watching him descend from his glossy black Mercedes coupe. The house fell to a hush. Mrs. Henderson straightened her blouse. I waited in the entryway, poised to turn the knob.
Both kids and, when they thought we couldn’t hear them, our parents, had always called Father Vaughn, Darth Vader. Father Vaughn is black. I didn’t think of his race much as a child, naively I associated his nickname with the doom that traveled with him, of how terrifying he was, his shoes echoing in clips down the school’s hallways, those flowing black robes soaring.
When Father Vaughn stepped through the front door, his black robe fanned out at his calves. Lemony morning light bathed in from the summer yard and streamed out behind his back, sharply illuminating his profile. His black leather shoe, polished and tightly laced, crossed the threshold into the marble entry, his hand, smooth and elegant, extended toward mine, the white cuff at his wrist poking out from the draped black sleeve. Each movement was full of duty. He looked at me, clasping my hand with both of his, his eyes full of fury and sorrow, of warmth. Not doom, I felt in Father Vaughn’s presence then, but grace, and it was as surprising as it was enveloping.
The other surprise was that Father Vaughn was short. I shook his hand, looking down at him.
“I’m so sorry,” he said in the low rumbling voice that hadn’t changed.
Then I did something I continued to do over the next few days and months: I said out loud what I’d meant to keep in my head. “I remember you much taller,” I said.
He moved on to shake Mrs. Henderson’s hand.
Later, when he’d departed, Jenny and I sat out on the front stoop. “I can’t believe you said that,” she chipped up. “I mean, I can. But dang, that was just awesome.” Jenny sometimes admires me and sometimes chastises me for speaking my mind.
“I actually didn’t mean to,” I said. “What I wanted to say was how kind of him it was to come.”
She chuckled, tossing a pebble down the cement steps. Then, with a mock guilty face she said, “You know what I thought of?”
“What?” I asked.
“Do you think he’s doing the Michael Jackson thing?”
“No – skin bleaching,” she replied. “I mean, I remember him so much blacker.”
I laughed. She laughed. Gallows humor. We weren’t laughing down at Father Vaughn or at him. We were laughing at the world. The world had become so strange in those few days that it simply felt good to see that there was strangeness all around and always had been, to think of how funny and vain we all are, each of us, with our teeth whitening treatments and charm bracelets, our baguettes and sex wax. Jenny and I laughed until our sides hurt. Then we tossed pebbles some more.
“Back then we were so small,” I said. “And we didn’t have much exposure to anyone other than this neighborhood of white people. And the neighborhood seemed like the world back then—so maybe it was just that comparatively he was blacker.”
“And taller.” She quipped.
We were sitting on the porch in the afternoon, cars going by, two kids playing volleyball in the cul de sac. Perspective, you do gain it. The feeling of shock is of an enormous adjustment in your mind’s vision; while it finds a way to slip into a new place, you look out, squinting.
Who made the coffee? I wondered as I sat at my mom’s whitewashed pine table. Even without its leaves inserted, the table felt too large for the narrow dining area wedged between the kitchen and the laundry room in the house my mom had been renting for eight years. Next to me, in one of the high-backed dining chairs, my younger sister Jenny sat on my mom’s lap, the two of them crumpled together, sobbing. My dad sat across from me, sipping coffee, black. It was the first time he’d been inside that house. My mom moved there after their divorce had finalized, and neither he nor the table looked like they had been sized to fit such a low-ceilinged room.
MELISSA SELEY is a writer based in New York. Her literary essay “Indulge Me” was recently published alongside works by writers such as William Carlos Williams and Raymond Carver in a 50th Anniversary edition of Spectrum, a Southern California-based journal. Essays have been published in literary journals including H.O.W. Journal and MARY. Interviews and profiles have appeared in numerous print and online magazines including BOMB online, Paper, Tokion, Gastronomica and The Last Magazine. She is a 2010-2011 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Writer-in-Residence, and is the co-founder, with Kate Sennert, of Ess Ess, a reading series aimed at pluralism. http://www.melissaseley.com