Susan woke up with the birds, as Homer always said. It was Saturday morning, and she turned toward her husband but his side of the bed was still squared away; barely mussed and tucked in. The sight startled Susan and it took a few moments for the confusion to drift away. To remember that she was very much alone in their bed.
She turned her back and stared out the bay window. Her eyelashes felt like acupuncture needles stuck in one long raised blister.
Susan focused on the buzz of hummingbird wings flitting nervously around the coral bells and red salvia growing outside the bedroom windows. A little farther out was the song of some yellow-rumped warblers.
For a moment, it was possible to relax into sound; to feel the clean cotton sheets snuggled around her body. They were white with little pink flowers. They were new. So was the yellow quilt she’d gotten at the Lodi Target store.
The striped sheets Homer died in were folded neatly in a decorative box she’d also picked up at the Target. On top of the sheets was a small lock of his hair between one of his money clips, and a post-it note from last Saturday morning. On the yellow note were her husband's last words: "I can’t talk no more."
Susan took in a deep breath and then let it out. It was time to get moving. It was Homer’s memorial today. Family only, and simple. They’d go spread his ashes by his favorite fishing hole, and then come back to the house for a potluck supper.
Even so, Susan continued to stay wrapped in her new sheets, feeling like a loose oak leaf still attached to the branch in winter, just waiting to fall to solid ground. She’d been shaky like this since the day after Homer’s passing.
My first Saturday.
A week earlier, she'd held her dead husband’s head and kissed the skin stretched over his bony forehead. She'd regretted it immediately. It had felt thin and reptile-like under her lips.
Afterwards, the professionals took over the details. Thanks be to God, Susan thought then, and repeated to herself now. It had been so nice not to deal with any of death’s aftermath. It only took the Neptune Society about five hours to reach the house.
They came in two black vans, and brought a gurney and a maroon colored body bag. She’d watched them carefully wrap Homer’s body in that body bag, and then wheel his cocooned body out to one of the vans. Followed them out and watching the red taillights of those black vans dapple through the leaves.
Susan had stood in that spot until the memory of the tail-lights’ red glow began to disperse into the sounds around her.
The Neptune Society took Homer’s remains for cremation, and she’d picked up the box of ashes yesterday in Lodi. That’s when she stopped by the Target. It was bright and she felt anonymous. No one in that store knew anything about her or that she was shaking inside.
Of course, her tremors weren’t anything permanent, like some sort of Parkinsons or something. Susan felt more like an animal now than she ever had, including those first few months with Homer,that freight train of lust.
Her body was so afraid, her senses overloaded by the inevitable failure of Homer’s cancer-ridden body, the emergency catheter insertion, the bed sores, the bad smells of rot and death. His dead body.
Most of all, though, most of what kept the fear in her veins was the sound of Homer’s gurgling breath on the morning of his death. It went on and on, for at least two hours. Or, so it seemed.
The hospice nurse reassured her that he wasn’t in any kind of pain, that the morphine kept him from really experiencing these last few hours in any sort of corporal way. But that sound, that gurgling kept looping in her head.
Susan shuddered from the tips of her toes to the top of her scalp. She wouldn’t let anyone she loved hear that sound when her time came.
The bright lights and unruly sounds of children at the Target store drowned the gurgling out for a bit. Maybe that’s why she’d walked around and around, filling her red shopping cart.
After hospice left, taking their morphine with them, the home nursing services came in, taking all the medical equipment away, leaving holes in the living room and bedroom. She hadn’t done anything about putting things back to right. She wasn’t even sure she’d do it today. It was only family coming. And that nice attorney, Steve Howell.
"Pigfuckers." Susan covered her mouth, surprised at herself, but the memory of the deposition the week before Homer died made her spitting angry. Homer had definitely finished his part of the lawsuit, anyway.
In fact he’d gone out in a blaze of glory, blasting those smug attorneys to smithereens with his moral strength and all those job records he’d kept. She heard Steve tell Homer that she’d be set for life, not to worry about his Susan.
And, that, as they say, was that. Homer’d gone from being alive to being dead overnight. Well, that’s how it seemed. Susan knew she’d been wrapped up in his decline, unable to really see its downward spiral in any sort of real way. Like kittens. You didn’t notice they were full-on cats until they were.
The anger was enough finally to get up and out of bed. Standing, Susan slipped into a cozy yellow robe over her pink nightgown, but left her feet bare. It was already beginning to show signs of a warm day.
Besides, she’d gotten herself a fancy pedicure at the beauty parlor by the Target when she’d gone into town. Her feet looked pretty and soft, with a silvery white polish sparkling on her toes.
Padding her way into the kitchen, Susan brewed a pot of strong coffee and got her French Vanilla creamer from the fridge. There was also a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass at the ready, thanks to Tommy.
Her husband’s cousin, at 36, was much younger than they were, but he and Susan had always had a strange bond. Susan liked Tommy, and Tommy liked Susan. Just one of those rare friendships that never needed a starter switch.
She hadn’t called him to tell him of Homer’s passing. She’d called only one person, Homer’s mother. The word spread from there, and by Monday afternoon, a small memorial had already been planned. She’d been glad not to be involved in any of it. She couldn’t have participated in anything as normal as planning. Not right now.
It didn’t surprise her when Tommy’d shown up early Tuesday morning in his 1970’s white VW van, carrying his guitar and a few bottles of Jim Beam. She’d brewed some fresh coffee, and made them both a delicious Irish coffee with Kool-Whip.
She’d been doing it every morning since, and probably would until Tommy left. Of course, Susan was danged sure Tommy drank a lot more in a day than a shot in his morning coffee, but she didn’t think that was any of her business.
Besides, he wasn’t a mean drunk. Nope, Tommy had the blessing of the bard, and charm oozed from his bones, drunk or sober.
Tommy was double dip Irish-American. Homer and his sister, Clodagh, Tommy’s Mother, were from Irish Leggetts, although most were Scottish. Tommy’s father had been of the Irish Cheshires, although most Cheshires were English. His, therefore, was a family of black sheep Irish.
Both families were genetically wired with the double edged sword of whiskey and music. Tommy was a true Irish soul, unlike his younger brother Seamus who was just a little too mean-spirited for her liking.
"Probably got the English short stick," Homer used to say. She’d thought it wasn’t anything so fancy. Their father was a violent drunk who’d disappeared-after putting Clodagh in the hospital. The boys had been young, maybe 8 and 9 years old.
Hope he brings his Bodhran. Seamus redeemed himself every once in a while on his Irish drum. She had to give him that.
Tommy shuffled into the kitchen. "Speak of the devil hisself!"
"Shhhh…" whispered Tommy, pointing to his head, and then pointing to the whiskey before sitting on one of the stools at that kitchen’s center island. He lit a cigarette, using a coffee saucer for an ashtray. She hadn’t asked him not to, not that he’d thought to ask permission.
It was warm and all the windows were open, including the French doors that opened into the back yard.
"Good day for fishing," Tommy said, wanting to acknowledge the memorial. He’d never been one for direct communication. Especially about unpleasant things, but that’s why he was there. No use ignoring the obvious.
Susan just looked up and nodded her head a bit, a Mona Lisa smile on her wide mouth. She’d already whipped up two perfect Irish coffees, complete with an excessive dollop of Kool-Whip.
She sat down on a stool across from Tommy and they drank in companionable silence, the warblers still singing, and a lone woodpecker offering percussion close by. There also seemed to be a rather large murder of ravens cawing in the tops of a few giant sequoias lining their property.
My property, she reminded herself.
One of Tommy’s legs was restless, shaking out some constant, internal river of rhythm. Soon enough, Susan knew, he’d go find his guitar, sit on the picnic table in the back yard, smoke cigarettes, drink whiskey and sing sad songs for hours. Some Irish ballads, maybe a little Van Morrison, and some songs by a guy named Tom Waits.
The phone rang, interrupting her thoughts. Susan didn’t immediately get up to answer it. Homer always picked up on the second ring, like clockwork. That ring was an unwanted reminder that he wouldn’t never do it again. She was suddenly furious.
Susan sucked in her breath hard and reached over to the phone and hit the green button,
"Good morning, Susan." It was Homer’s attorney. His voice was so pleasant, no fake-ass sadness everyone else seemed to think was polite these days.
"Steve, what a nice surprise." She meant it. "Are you headed up?"
"Well, Mom told me she put you down for desert. Hope it wasn’t much trouble."
"Not at all. I picked up a couple of fresh baked pies from my favorite bakery. Hope you don’t mind I didn’t make ‘em myself."
Susan almost smiled. "I wouldn’t have expected that, Steve. I think your talents lie outside the kitchen. Maybe in the dining room…" She heard a genuine laugh come through the phone. Susan had a gift with the G-rated double entendres.
"That would be correct! Hey, I think I’ll be there around noon. If it’s too early, I’ll…"
"Not at all. Our cousin Tommy’s here. You two can sip whiskey and keep each other company while I get things ready. He’s outside playing his guitar." As an afterthought, she said, "He’s got a band. Says he’s sort of famous down your way."
"Yes!" Susan was honestly surprised, but pleased that a big-shot lawyer would know about Tommy. "Yes, that’s right, the Crazy Cats they call themselves."
"I know the band well, Susan. They’re one of my favorites. You know, they’re on the verge of breaking out of the Bay Area bar circuit. Exciting time for them."
"Yup, all we been hearing from him for some months now. Something about a gig at the Viper. Whatever that is. Sounds like a biker bar to me."
Susan was actually smiling now. They’d thought Tommy was spinning tales, desperate to avoid the facts of life, his bright star finally fading under the weight of lost dreams and all that Jim Beam.
So cool! thought Steve, sitting up high in his Chevy truck, smiling along with Susan. "Well, tell him that sounds like a fine plan. I’ll see you both soon."
"Yup, ok, Steve. See you soon!"
Susan hung up and drifted out toward the sound of Tommy’s guitar. She stood beside the picnic table, looking out over the trees sloping down behind the house. It was a beautiful view on a beautiful day. All at once, her smile melted into the hot burst under her breastbone as tears started down her face.
Tommy heard her start to cry which made his own eyes well up. He couldn’t bring himself to open his mouth or move to her side to offer some comfort. Can’t even pull out something nice for Susan, can you. Selfish fuck...
Tommy sighed as he rolled his head around his neck. When he came up rightside, he knew what he could do. He’d play her favorite song, only this time it wasn’t just wistful, it was a good-bye.
I am stretched on your grave
and I'll lie here forever
If you hands were in mine
I'd be sure they would not sever
My apple tree, my brightness,
It's time we were together
For I smell by the Earth
And I'm worn by the weather...
He thought she’d understand, and she did. Sitting down next to Tommy on the picnic table, Susan picked up the whiskey bottle and poured a little on the ground.
"Here’s to you, Homer Leggett, the love of my life. I’ll see you in heaven."
She took a small sip and handed the bottle to Tommy, who followed Susan’s lead, pouring a small amount on the ground,
"Here’s to a fine man, a fine man," and then took a rather more substantial drag from the bottle.