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Fiction

Laying Out the Clothes

That's the thing about this city. It's easy to leave.

They had never missed the place where they began their lives. They often said, “It’s a great place to be from.”

Now they were back, after a flurry of hurried phone calls, and two planes that carried them from different parts of the county. They shared a hotel room, and after doing what they could at the hospital, made their way back to the house where they had grown up.

Now the two sisters sat together on the bed in their mother’s bedroom in front of a small pile of clothing. The lamp on the matching nightstand cast a downward glow. Gail sighed, and stretched her back. “Turn on the overhead, Beth. I can’t see what I’m doing.”

Beth reached behind her, and flipped the switch on the wall. She looked around, and said, “At least with it off you can’t see the dust. We’ve got to get in here and clean.”

Gail nodded her head, then paused. “Do you think it’s time to sell the house?”

“Probably. Mom doesn’t need it. But who would want to actually come here to live?”

Beth set aside the blouse she was inspecting, and glanced at her watch. “Are we making any progress here? We’ve been at it for an hour.”

Gail looked out the window. “It’s starting to rain. Great. Nothing like picking out burial clothes for your mother during a downpour. Now, what about the house?”

“Mom will never be here again. We might as well sell it. If we can sell it. Do you think there’s a market here?”

Gail put a pale blue silk shirt back onto a hanger. “Supposedly the city is recovering. I’m not exactly sure from what, except being stuck in another century.”

She held out the shirt. “This is pretty. Did she ever wear it?”

“I don’t think she ever had the chance,” Beth said.

Gail smoothed the skirt of an ivory linen suit. “This one looks too mother of the bride.”

Beth peered at it and said, “It was mother of the bride. She was the mother of the bride. I was the bride. It’s very old. I can’t believe it’s still here.”

She straightened up again. “I thought planning a wedding was complicated, but this is definitely worse.”

“How so?”

Beth replied, “This is sort of like putting together a honeymoon outfit in reverse. When you pick out a travelling suit, you know the bride isn’t going to be wearing it for long. It’s for the pictures of her leaving the reception.”

Gail took off her glasses, and set them on the nightstand. “I guess a funeral outfit is the same way. It’s for leaving. I want Mom to have something nice. The funeral director showed me a catalog of outfits that stay on with Velcro. Can you imagine?”

She opened a plastic shoe box labeled in her mother’s precise printing -- “summer sandals”. She closed up the box. “Open-toed. I think we need to put pumps on Mom. If we don’t, we’ll have a hard time explaining it to the rest of the family.”

Beth shrugged. “What rest of the family? You, me, and whatever relatives are still breathing next week. And she’ll only show from the waist up.”

“Yes, but I’ll know if she’s barefoot, and it will bother me,” Gail said. “You don’t go anywhere important barefoot.”

“Then why not put slippers on her? Maybe embroidered,” Beth suggested.

“Yes, I’ll write it down,” Gail assured her.

“Do you still carry your phone number in your wallet?” Beth asked.

“If I’m ever hit with amnesia in the middle of Fancy Foods, I’ll be able to get home again.”

“Gail, don’t make jokes. Remember what happened to Mom? How’d Walmart find you?”

“Mom had one of those emergency cards. When somebody got there, she also had a cart full of pool toys.”

“She doesn’t have a pool,” Beth said. “She doesn’t even have a bathing suit.”

Gail answered, “She said she was going to Florida with the children. At the time, her youngest grandchild was twenty.”

“Well, she kept the toy box until your kids were in junior high.”

“Did she hang onto any of the dolls?” Gail asked. “You know, I feel sort of like I’m picking out outfits for a big Barbie doll now.”

“Which Barbie?”

“Terminal Barbie. She comes with fifty feet of plastic tubing and a durable power of attorney.”

“Do you have to buy the hospital bed separately?”

“God, Beth. We’re making jokes. Is that terrible?”

Gail paused. “Not if the alternative is sobbing. Do you think it will be long now?”

Beth shook her head. “I’m glad the hospice nurse threw us out, though. She said we needed a break. Some break. How do you think Dad would feel about all of this? Mom’s still here and we’re going through her stuff looking for something to bury her in.”

“He’d have done the same thing,” Gail assured her. “He always liked to plan things ahead of time.”

Beth replied. “I told Mom we’d take in a couple of outfits and let her choose one.”

“Do you think she knew what you were saying?” Gail asked.

“I’m not sure. But we’ll do it anyway. And at least we’ll know we tried,” Beth replied.

“We do great funerals, Gail. We stop just short of an open bar and a polka band. But seriously, can we have music?”

After a moment, Beth said, “It might be nice to have some harp music. With a live harpist. I mean nothing taped. Almost any song sounds good on a harp. You want to talk food while we’re making plans?”

Gail folded a handkerchief, and put it on the stack of clothing. “Mom never went anywhere without a clean hankie. At any rate, I’d like to have a real luncheon. Something with her favorite foods. The ones she hasn’t been able to eat for years.”

“But honey, her favorite foods were chocolate and cheese. And tacos. She’s dining through latex these days,” Beth replied. “But a salute to sodium in her honor is fine. It’s just one meal.”

“Think so? I just don’t want to lose sight of Mom in all of this.”

“It happens all the time with grooms. They’re sort of like the deceased.”

“How so?” Gail asked.

“Well, you can’t have a traditional two gender wedding without a groom. You can’t have a funeral without the deceased. But quite often neither of them really has anything to say about what gets done.”

“I see your point,” Gail admitted. “Beth, I’d like have things completely her way just this once.”

Beth didn’t look up, but nodded.

“Okay, then what should she wear?”

Beth replied quickly, “Something with sleeves. She hates florals.”

Gail looked surprised. “I didn’t know that. Everything she wears has flowers all over it.”

Beth replied, “That’s because all she’s been in are those tent things that are easy to put on and take off. And they run to roses.”

“Not to be confused with the Run for the Roses.” Gail’s joke was as thin as her smile.

“No, she wore a suit and a hat to that,” Beth said, remembering. “The Kentucky Derby. It must have been the early sixties. She and Dad stayed in a nice hotel.”

 “They were fighting a lot in those days.”

“There was a lot that went on that we didn’t see. But whatever it was, they got past it. And Dad took that picture of her coming out of the ladies’ room at the race. She never liked it. There was a water spot on her lapel.”

“The sign behind her saying ‘ladies’ didn’t bother her?” Gail asked.

“Not as much as that water spot.”

“I think she’d like a corsage -- but it’ll have to be silk to stay nice.”

Gail turned to look at Beth. “Well, it’s not like somebody’s going to crush her gardenia while they’re dancing. About the relatives -- I think they’ll show up. And if they come, we feed them. Kind of like ants at a picnic. Except these aunts travel with uncles.”

“Some of them still do. I haven’t been to many regular funerals. Mostly scatterings,” Beth told her.

“Scatterings?” Gail asked.

“Where they scatter ashes. One time, we had to hike into a game preserve and everybody got a little bag lunch and a bottle of wine.” Beth added, “I think there was candy, too.”

“Good God.”  

“It was an okay day. Beats the heck out of what we’re trying to do now. What are we trying to do?” Beth stopped for a moment, and sighed.

“We’re just trying to do it right. Do you think she needs a program?” Gail asked her.

“You mean a booklet? It might be a good idea,” Beth replied. “Some things about her life, maybe a poem, pictures. Reminders -- that sort of thing.”

“In case we forget why we’re dressed up and crying on a Tuesday morning?”

Gail stood up and motioned for her sister to follow. “Let’s quit for the evening. We’ll finish later. Tonight, there’s still later.”

Beth picked up her purse and her sweater, and looked at the stack on the bed. “I guess we can leave these until tomorrow. I’ve got to check on silk flowers and a harpist.”

“I’ll call the caterer. I think we’ll be expecting about fifty people, don’t you?”

Beth nodded. “That should be fine, and if there’s anything left over, we can send people home with something. That’s what Mom always did.”

They walked down the hall, turned off the light, and stepped out onto the porch. Gail turned the key in the lock, and the tumblers clicked softly. The doorbell light glowed yellow with its empty welcome as the city sounds came forward to meet them.

March 15, 2021 21:33

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