Christopher Sessums CC
Bury Me Naked
Sandra is still dying when Mom catches me with my hand under the vending machine scraping the grimy floor for an errant quarter. If I was younger, she would pull me up by the arm that isn’t raking dust bunnies searching for that cold metal chance at a Twix. But we all get less pliable as we grow older, and she can’t risk it.
The way everyone is talking, Sandra doesn’t stand a chance. No one even mentions getting on the transplant list. No pristine twenty-year-old motorcycle accident lungs for her. Thirty years of that sexy nicotine exhale (woosh), first while joyriding in their brother’s Camaro, later while spritzing the lawn in the blaring summer heat and cussing out the neighbor’s dog who does his own spritzing, earns her zero pity. Not from the doctors that check her charts and update us, not from Mom who’s always reminded me that Sandra is my half-aunt, a love-child her father had with a woman he met in Los Angeles before she was born. The way she’s always told it, Sandra was the reason her father and mother divorced, her physicality more damning than his infidelity.
I rise from the floor, sans quarter, and drift into the waiting room where out-of-town aunts and uncles are debating the merits of casket liners and what dress Sandra should be buried in. Sandra is still alive, still breathing without a machine, still able (sometimes) to recognize me when I hesitate on the doorstep, afraid of disturbing the room’s antiseptic sheen. I open my mouth to remind them that her lungs, despite the cancer, still fill with air, when one of my uncles brings up the fact that Sandra has never been baptized. I look up and see my own confusion expressed in the faces of my family. He is a minister of the dunking, not the spritzing variety.
“Harold…” my dad sighs.
I wonder if, like me, he is trying to work out the mechanics. How do you completely submerge a cancer patient without drowning, or sending them into shock? An image of a crane lowering Sandra in her hospital bed into the pool at the YMCA flits through my mind. Her hospital gown would blouse out in the water causing an embarrassing situation. And is heaven really worth it if you have to show your tits to the entire family first?
Everyone shifts uncomfortably, checks their watches, wonders how long they must keep vigil before sneaking off to the nearest Sizzler to drown their feelings in all-you-can-eat shrimp and a trip to the salad bar. One of Sandra’s doctors walks in, and they converge on him. He doesn’t bat an eye, barely raises them off his clipboard as he mumbles responses to their questions. He says things like palliative care and pain management and my relatives respond in hushed tones. Feeling more an accessory than participant, I go to visit Sandra.
Like most days since she came to the emergency room complaining of chest pain, she incorrectly attributed to a heart attack, Sandra is asleep. I study her chest, hold my breath until I see it rise under the beige hospital blanket. I should just trust the machines that count every heartbeat, every breath she has left, but I need to see the rise, wait out the terrifying pause, until her chest sinks under the blanket.
The mop of blond hair (still there because chemo was pointless by the time they caught her cancer) rustles across the pillow and Sandra opens one glassy eye to stare at me. This is the worst moment of my visits, the liminal space I seem to occupy while she decides if I’m her niece or an opium induced vision. I remind myself to just be grateful she can still differentiate between the two. She twitches the blanket away from the edge of the bed and pats a spot next to her legs. I drag a chair next to the bed instead. Though her face registers disappoint, I can’t bring myself to sit on the bed. Despite the layers of denim, blanket, sheet, and hospital gown, the thought of our legs and hips touching makes me uncomfortable in a way I can’t articulate. Years later, when Mom drags me to change the flowers at her graveside, I’ll wonder if it was Sandra’s fragility in those final days, or some primal repulsion to the sick and weakest among us that stopped me sitting thigh to thigh with her.
To make up for my reticence, I take her bony hand in mine and gently squeeze it.
Sandra stares at me, then at the door, then at me again. “Tell it to me straight,” she croaks, “what are the hens squawking about now?”
I follow her eyes toward the door as if I can see through all the walls separating us from the waiting room. “How they’re going to bury you,” I finally say, relaxing.
The first time I met Sandra, a sticky summer night, the fumes of BBQ sinking into our clothes, she walked up to me and with a lopsided grin asked, “Where’ve you been all my life?” before dragging me to a table loaded with hamburgers and hotdogs. Mom trailed behind us, eyeing the beer in Sandra’s hand, lips pursed every time she wobbled on her espadrilles. When Sandra whipped the turquoise bucket hat my mom had purchased on-sale from Macys off my head and replaced it with her own straw-hat, Mom intervened.
“She needs sun protection,” she said, throwing her arm toward the sky where the late-afternoon summer sun was blaring.
Sandra sighed, regarded Mom as if it took all her patience when she said, “And a wide-brimmed hat is better for that.”
Sandra in her cut-off jean shorts, her cropped hair, her unmarried state even at forty. Mom said something under her breath that sounded like hike or bike.
Sandra smacks her lips. I hold her water cup in front of her, position the bendy straw between her dry lips. “Hole—me—dirt on top. Doesn’t need to be more complicated than that,” she says after she takes a drink.
I nod. It’s a simpler idea than Harold’s suggestion, anyways.
“How do you want your body disposed of when the time comes?” she asks, interrupting my second attempt to understand the mechanics of immersion baptism on the bed ridden.
“Never thought about it probably,” she says with a look that could be approval or jealousy.
Though the fact is, I have. Well before Sandra came to the hospital, before the doctor showed us her scans, doing his best to be sympathetic in a situation that for him was routine, I’d thought about my corpse. The easiest, most familiar way, demonstrated by one grandmother and a cousin with a drug problem, saw me comfortably nestled in a white satin lined coffin, flanked by sprays of lilies. The organist would play songs I didn’t like, and some machine would lower the coffin into the ground as my relatives stumbled away from my plot to sliced casserole and pie. Recently, I’d entertained the idea of cremation, but ultimately couldn’t reconcile myself to it. Sandra was right, just chuck me in the ground with enough dirt on top to keep animals from eating me.
“Just don’t let them church mine up too much,” Sandra says, referring, I know, to Harold. For years, she’s sent him into self-righteous tizzies with her agnostic skepticism. Maybe there’s an all-powerful God who is equal parts loving savior and whirlwind of swift destruction, maybe not. Prove it, she always tells him.
I mumble something incoherent, knowing my power to effect change in our family is nil. I don’t even get to pick the restaurant we eat our feelings at after these visits. I hate shrimp and feel so-so on salad.
Sandra’s hand leaves mine, trembles toward her mouth as one of the fits that wracks her body sets in. A pair of nurses rush in and hoist Sandra into a sitting position as she fights to breathe. They shoo me into the hall and close the door. I’m about to protest, the fear that this is the last time I’ll see Sandra making my heart palpitate, when Mom spots me.
“Finally,” she says. She has her coat buttoned up and her purse slung around her shoulder. “I’ve been looking for you all over this place.”
Sandra’s room is now silent, and she gives the door a perfunctory nod before hauling me to the parking garage.
Later, I’m shivering next to cooled mounds of cantaloupe and pineapple, hidden compressors preventing them from sweating juice. I pretend the congealed splatters of salad dressing near the lettuce bowl isn’t a reflection of the restaurant’s cleanliness. Baked potatoes steam from foil and the grease from fried shrimp glistens in the lamplight where two tables have been pushed together to accommodate our family. The arrangements debate has petered out, everyone silently agreeing to ignore Sandra’s wishes and to stick with the casket and maudlin ceremony they know.
I slide my plate of fruit and French fries next to a platter of discarded shrimp tails. They’re reminiscing about Sandra as if she’s already dead. I want to tell them about the conversation we just had, less than an hour ago, but I just keep shoveling lukewarm French fries into my mouth.
“Did you know she drove that car all the way to Florida one summer, just because?” Mom asked the group at large.
I’ve heard this story before. After her first and only year in college, Sandra drove by herself to Florida in a beat-up Checker she bought for one-hundred dollars. There she learned to surf, and the joys of ingesting what she had only dared smoke in the garage before.
“And she took up with that Hispanic fellow that tried to get her to move to Puerto Rico with him,” she continues to a round of sympathetic head shaking.
That part isn’t right. I know because after the first time I heard the story, I asked Sandra if she would have moved to Puerto Rico.
“Oh God, no,” she’d replied as we sat on her back porch, her chain-smoking Pall Malls, me shot-gunning Whoppers.
“Juan asked me to go after his father died. He had to move back to look after his mother and sisters. But there was no way in hell I was going to spend the rest of my life frying plantains and fetching his mom when she wandered into the neighbor’s yard.”
She’d shivered after that, even though the day was warm, the moisture evaporating where our bare feet touched the concrete. It was obvious what a close call she had considered Juan’s request, because shortly after he left for Puerto Rico, she started saving all her tips from her waitress job at a fancy seafood restaurant and began investing in condos. She paid close attention to market trends in the area and pulled all her money before the cycle went bust. The family had never forgiven her for returning in the 80s driving a Cadillac and paying cash for a brand-new house with premium wall-to-wall.
A few fries, soggy with melon juice, remain on my plate when the waitress comes by with the check and to remove the platter of shrimp tails. When we get home, the answering machine is blinking. Finally, because no one else will, I push the play button. It’s a message from the hospital. While our family was putting Sizzler’s all-you-can-eat policy to the test, Sandra died. Passed away is how the doctors puts it, an innocuous term he follows up with respiratory failure. I hand the phone to Dad so he can make the necessary round of calls. Mom has the decency to eke out a couple of tears before steam-rolling Sandra’s requests for a fuss-free funeral. Florists, an organist, and a highly recommended funeral home are enlisted to make a good showing.
I try to intervene in the following days, to insist that Sandra would prefer we give her money to charity and not spend it on a casket with rounded corners and a velvet interior. The extent of my efficacy is to have “In the Sweet By and By” knocked off the organist’s list. A poor epitaph, I think as we pull into the funeral home parking lot. Family, and a lot of Mom’s friends, are in the foyer signing a guest ledger and vying for whose trip had the worst traffic. A group of women, ensconced in layers of black and navy chiffon, surround Mom, and pat her shoulders while pressing fresh tissues on her even though her eyes are dry. They’re the type of women Sandra would never have had anything to do with. “Ninnies,” she called them. When once I asked what a ninny was, she told me to imagine a poodle trying to balance a checkbook.
The whole thing is…overly sentimental, even by funeral standards. For the first time, I’m glad Sandra’s dead; at least she was saved witnessing this spectacle. Hardly anyone seems upset. Only one woman, sun-tanned and deeply wrinkled, holds a tissue to her eyes as her shoulders tremble. She’s sitting alone, and when I look at Mom to ask her who she is, I see that she too is staring at this stranger. Her lips are drawn together in a tight line and the muscles around her mouth are working though no sound escapes. I lean forward to see if Dad is aware of this silent demonstration. He shakes his head at me, as if he knows what I’m going to ask.
After the service, I stand on the chapel steps as people shuffle out, waiting for the tanned woman. I finally spot her, billowy black trousers and oversized sunglasses against a backdrop of pantyhose and pencil skirts, oversized blazers and polished oxfords. I watch as she walks to a car with Florida license plates, too nervous to ask her if she knew Sandra and then watch her scramble to say something comforting when I tell her I was Sandra’s half-niece. She gives the chapel one last sweeping look before climbing into her two-seater and gunning the engine. I think she pauses as she takes one last look at the chapel—does she see me? Is there recognition in her gaze? Did she pause just a little too long as I balanced on my block heels?
I’m still assessing the evidence over a plate of casserole and a smaller plate of pie and cookies in the fellowship hall of my uncle’s church while the flower arrangements from the funeral are divvied up among Mom’s friends. There’s a squabble over a vase of dark purple gladioli. Dad looks on from a small table, half eaten slice of pecan pie in front of him, the long day showing on his face. Other small tables of relatives watch as Mom emerges victorious, vase in hand. I decide to go for broke, to ignore Dad’s silent warning from earlier.
“Who was that tanned woman in the sunglasses at Sandra’s funeral?” I ask Mom as she passes by my table.
For a moment I worry she’ll drop the vase, that water and bits of glass will coat the floor and table and make my uneaten corn casserole and fruit pie a health hazard, but she doesn’t. She sets the vase on the table, pulls up a chair.
“That woman was Sandra’s friend from Florida.”
There’s an emphasis on the word friend, a sort of code that I’m supposed to understand. I halfway do, but in our town, at that time, I have little reference that isn’t wrapped up in layered innuendo. Carol and Susan have been married in front of Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Monica, and Phoebe, but it will be years until I watch a video-taped version when Mom and Dad are asleep.
“After Juan, well before and after Juan, Sandra and she…” She shreds a pile of napkins, methodically, taking her time. I worry she’s forgotten what she was saying when she gets up. “Just be glad she didn’t stick around for the reception,” she says.
The gladioli sit abandoned in front of me, purple blossoms beginning to wilt at the edges. Did Sandra even like gladioli? I never thought to ask, but I doubt it. Gladioli are effusive, their petals long and unfurling, forcing you to look deeper, to trace the path the pistil makes into the flower. Sandra was more like a marigold, vibrant, but not fussy. just chuck her in the ground, and cover her with some dirt.
Jordan lives and writes in Washington. She has an MA in literature from the University of Utah. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Woven Tale, JMWW, Reunion: The Dallas Review, the Heavy Feather Review, and the Vassar Review as well as other publications.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.