Excerpt for Miss Over by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Also by Thomas F. Cook


Novels

Blooming

Illyria


Plays

A Score of Zero In Tennis

The Chicken Screamer

Victoria’s Children

The Cigar Tree

Lost Dogs

The gAy-List

The Day Job

Like Being In Love

Side Effects

A Tendency To Say Ummm

The Names Have Been Changed


Other Work

The Family Of Charles Abby Cook





Miss Over



by




Thomas F. Cook



MISS OVER. Copyright © 2014 by Thomas F. Cook.

All rights reserved


No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the author.


First published by Diamond C Press



This is a work of fiction. Events and situations in the book are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.


Printed in The United States of America.


ISBN-13: 978-0-9907206-2-1


Author photo courtesy of Emma Lumsden.

Cover photo: Griqualand, 2012, by the author.



Acknowledgments:


The Writers Room, NY and Paragraph, NY. My writing group Paratactic: Bonnie Altucher, Jenna Leigh Evans, Rosalie Necht, and Helen Terndrup. I would also like to thank Dina Montes, Roberta Newman, Andreas Guido Verras, John Delk, Pedro de Armas-Kendall, and a playwright and teacher who died in the 80s, but whose kindness and encouragement I still have with me: Meade Roberts. For the Khoi stories, I was inspired and borrowed heavily from the work of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd. In particular their work: Specimens of Bushmen Folklore.







A note about the animals


All of the animal behavior is based on what I witnessed and what I was told by guides. It is not meant to be perfectly accurate. For example, one of the guides told our group that hyenas will dig up human corpses and eat them. This is not true. However, because the animals make Rebecca think that her own actions are on display or on trial, I wasn’t looking for “animal accuracy” but rather the mix of truth and fiction that we use to understand ourselves and the world.







Chapter 1

In transit

She woke to the sound of a call. An electronic ping cut through the stiff dry air and brought her back to life, though she hadn’t actually been sleeping. She had only been pretending to sleep, thinking that if she aped the other passengers she would eventually slip into some form of rest before their arrival in South Africa.

Though Rebecca was 46, she had never been on a flight longer than ninety minutes and hadn’t any idea of how difficult it would be to sit – just sit – for fourteen hours. Julian, her best friend, had warned her, but she hadn’t imagined it could be as horrible as it had been so far. The flight was packed — every seat taken — and now, halfway across the ocean, they were expected to close their eyes and sleep in that awkward sitting position bound by a seat belt across the waist. She had absolutely no idea how all the other people were able to do it.

A flight attendant brushed lightly against Rebecca’s arm as she made her way up the aisle to attend to whoever had summoned her at this quiet hour. Perhaps it was an accident. Maybe a hefty fellow, shifting in his sleep to get more comfortable, unknowingly pressed with his hip the little white button with the silhouette of a short skirted woman. Rebecca pressed down on the arm rests, lifted herself gently, trying not to disturb the man to her right, and looked over the rows ahead of her. She saw only the tops of heads poking over identical seats. Some bald. Some gray. Brunettes. Blondes. All sleeping. Only one head retained a tiny white pillow. They looked like the coins in the muscular dystrophy card they used to have standing on the counter at her dry cleaner’s. Halves of heads. Tips of tails.

She watched with a smile as the young woman gracefully made her way up the aisle, unhurried — lightly touching the seats behind the dormant heads — as if she was a saint blessing the soon to be resurrected. She walks on air, Rebecca thought. She is a woman who walks on air.

She looked for the light switch on her armrest and turned it on, hoping the light would not bother anyone, especially the rather amiable man sitting to her right who had introduced himself as Trevor Wardman. After a brief pause, light splashed down on her in a bright cone, but it seemed not to disturb Trevor. She retrieved her backpack from under the seat in front of her and looked for something to read. She had two things: a book of poems and a gossip magazine. She didn’t know why she bought the magazine and she was too preoccupied to read poetry, but she chose the book of poems anyway and opened randomly to one:


Sister sniffs the poison flower —

Then bows to pink its thorny stem —

She plants the flower — in her hair —

And dubs the flower — diadem.


No no no. Not now, she thought. She put it away. For something to do and feeling a grin work its way onto her face, she pulled from her pack a magnifying glass that she always carried in case she wanted to observe something, like a wildflower or a bug in the woods, or the increasingly rare postage stamp. This time she decided to use it to inspect her neighbor’s scalp.

Trevor was a South African who was working on some sort of reality television show about a South African orphanage that would be “shown in America, cross thumbs,” he had said. He was affable and an enthusiastic talker, but she noticed even before they took off from JFK in New York that he had the most God-awful breath she had ever encountered — something that had to have been caused by an ulcer or a chronic stomach condition. While he talked about his business (she could remember almost nothing of what he had said about it) she had held her breath and took sporadic gasps of air while he was looking down and cutting the tiny piece of meat that they called Beef Wellington. It amused her though. She was not easily put off by such things as bad breath.

She looked around to see if anyone was awake or watching her. No one was. She took her glass and peered at the crown of his head, hoping to see some dandruff or a blemish. But there was nothing. His scalp was white and clean and each black hair of his head plunged into a pore of its own. What a jungle, she thought, and no thinning either. That brought to mind an awful fight she had with Julian not too long ago and she thought about it after tucking her glass into the seat pocket.

It was a simple mistake really. It was a Friday night and he had picked her up on their way to Sushi Rock in downtown Cleveland. When she got in the car, something about the car’s overhead light and the tilt of his head made it apparent that he was just starting to thin at the crown, and she said, before thinking better of it, “Julian, is your hair finally starting to thin?”

“What,” he said, but it wasn’t a question and she could tell he was already defensive.

“Nothing,” Rebecca said, “I just thought... it looked... ummm... like it was thinning, but probably not.”

“I’m not losing my hair Rebecca. My grandfather had a full head of hair when he died and it’ll be exactly the same for me. It’s the mother’s father. That’s the hair that boys get.”

“It must have been the light.”

“Of course it was. I have a full head of beautiful blond hair and a great ass. That’s what my mother always said to me.” He laughed and added, “What kind of mother says that?”

She was relieved that Julian had laughed as he pulled onto Abbe Road and that he hadn’t stayed defensive. He was very good at getting over things and moving on. She sometimes thought it was one of his gifts; at least he was much better at it than she was. But then her problems were so much more difficult to get over — things you couldn’t talk about in the festive atmosphere of a sushi restaurant with a large tray of tuna, salmon and yellowtail maki in front of you.

She looked around the dark cabin again, almost hoping someone else would be awake. No one stirred. She couldn’t even hear a slightly choked snore.

In a way Julian was the reason she was taking this trip. Ever since they had rented the movie Out of Africa a few years ago, they had played a silly game he had started about the line, “I had a farm in Africa.” They would repeat it to each other in many different ways, as dramatically as possible, using fake British or Danish accents.

“Oh Rebecca dear,” he would say, “I had a dog in Africa but it was run over by a Land Rover.”

“Oh Julian darling,” she would return, “I had a car in Africa but it was crushed by a mad elephant.”

And then, “I read a book in Africa but I went blind before I reached the ending.”

“Why who do you think you are, darling, Milton?”

They would go on this way, and eventually, always, degenerate into vulgarity — “I had a puke in Africa,” “I had a piss in Africa,” “I took a dump in Africa,” “I had a fuck in Africa.”

But after awhile, especially over the last year, the game had changed for Rebecca and by the time her father got sick, taking an African safari was something she desperately wanted to do. She needed this trip.

Chapter 2


It had been a terrible year. It began when she realized at the depressingly early age of 44 that she was entering menopause. In and of itself, the menopause didn’t trouble her — it was something about having to let go. It made her think about her old girlfriends, the friends she’d had in her twenties when she was going through what she called her “promiscuous” stage. She supposed that most people would find it hard to believe that she had enjoyed a promiscuous stage, and promiscuous in Illyria could hardly be the same thing as promiscuous in a large city like Cleveland, but it was, nevertheless, one of the stages of her life. Menopause made her look back on it, and the three good friends she had at the time: Joanne, Molly and Shannon. All three had all married and pursued the life of husband and children while she... she grew closer to Julian.

Julian was ten years younger than she was and he had a cute, winsome kind of expression that was well-suited to his job teaching fifth graders. They had met in a bar in downtown Illyria, of all the strange places, and they had hit it off immediately, especially after they learned they were both Illyria school teachers. He taught at Windsor Elementary while she taught seventh-grade earth science at Northridge Junior High, and it was almost always the case that Julian’s students became her students two years later, so they talked about the kids often. She would tell him how his favorites were doing and he would warn her which ones to look out for.

Over a decade or so, their friendship grew to the point where everyone assumed that Rebecca and Julian were basically a married couple. She was at every dinner party he gave. She knew all his friends. She liked some and didn’t like others, especially one named Bruce Bigelow who she had nicknamed, “Bruce The Low,” because he was always making nasty little digs at her, as if he was jealous of her friendship with Julian, or perhaps just a misogynist.

In fact, she thought, as the darkened plane continued its trek to Johannesburg, it was at their last Thanksgiving dinner that Bruce had wounded her deeply by something he said. His comment was like the cannon that destabilizes an avalanche, and she hadn’t been the same since. They were all sitting around Julian’s dinner table, having a raucous good time — and someone had said something rather mean about Julian. The snipe was, “Oh Julian, you’re all glands and no heart.” Rebecca knew that gay men could be awfully bitchy with each other — it was part of their “game” — but she felt the nasty comment went too far and she had spoken up and said that Julian was the most heart felt and loving person she had ever known. Then Bruce The Low had summarily dismissed her by saying, “Well of course you’re going to defend him. You have to. You’re his fag hag.”

“Bruce, how dare you, I am notཀ” she shouted, but quickly backed down when others around the table laughed or made ouch faces or added their own loud thoughts. She snuck a look at Julian at the head of the table, but he avoided eye contact with her by taking a sip of his wine, and it was that avoidance that disturbed her. He avoided looking at her because he believed those words to be true. She kept trying to tell herself, with all the awful implications of that awful word ‘hag’, that it wasn’t true. But what if it was? What if she was just a fag hag?

It made her want to know then what Julian and she were to each other. It made her want to hear that she wasn’t just a “hag.” He went to Cleveland to the gay bars to find sex nearly every Saturday night, but this couldn’t go on forever, could it? Why didn’t he ever want to spend a Saturday night with her, just to go to a movie or to a nice dinner somewhere? Why was their relationship confined to Fridays? Did he really need to go prowling every Saturday?

She wanted to fix this relationship but she didn’t know what she was trying to fix. She didn’t want to marry him and she wasn’t in love with him. “You’re his fag hag,” Bruce The Low had said, and the meaner of those two words, “hag,” kept gnawing at her. What did that word mean anyway? That she was ugly? Or is the hag the woman who always falls in love with gay men because gay men are never going to become sexually intimate? Molly, Joanne and Shannon had gone to become wives and mothers, shuttle drivers, caretakers of fish and hamsters, while she had become the increasingly spinsterish appendage to a gay man — a man who she loved dearly but wasn’t “in love” with.

She finally brought it up when they were on the phone one evening.

“Julian,” she asked, not waiting for an appropriate moment because she didn’t think there could be an appropriate moment, “is that really what I am? Or is that all I am to you, I mean?”

“What? What you are talk about? I’m talking about tattoos.”

“I mean what Bruce said, at Thanksgiving.”

“What did he say?” (So good at forgetting, she thought.)

“You know... that I’m... that I’m your fag hag.” She tripped over the two little words. They barely came out of her mouth.

“No, Rebecca, of course not.”

“But what am I then?” she asked, “to you, I mean.”

“You’re my best friend.”

He put it so simply, and it warmed her when she heard him say it. It made everything feel soft again and it temporarily banished her doubt. She decided not to pursue the question to a deeper degree unless it continued to bother her.

Trevor, still sleeping soundly next to her, his head tipped over to the side and almost resting on Rebecca’s shoulder, breathed in deeply as if he was short of breath, and then she heard his stomach make a large unhappy growl. She supposed the digestion of that Beef Wellington wasn’t going too well and then when she heard the unmistakable sound of flatus escaping his body, she laughed and fanned the air in front of her nose.

We’ll always have the fart, she thought.

She loved the human body, in spite of all the trouble it caused.

*

In December of that year, just a few weeks after Bruce’s nasty comment, her father called her up one night and complained of pain. When pressed for details, he said it was pain that went from the front to his back, and he added that he couldn’t pass his stool. Rebecca’s first thought was, “oh my God” because she intuited that it was life threatening. She picked him up and drove him to the Illyria hospital and he was admitted. It was metastatic pancreatic cancer, the kind with a mere four percent survival rate. His pancreas was removed and he began a chemotherapy treatment with a drug called Gemcitabine which gave him headaches and sores in his mouth. His pretentious sister, Victoria, who they deliberately called Vicky to annoy her, began showing up at the house, ostensibly to help. But Willard Over was a proud man and he wanted no one but Rebecca to help him. Rebecca initially agreed that it was better that she care for him so in addition to grading papers and preparing the next day’s lesson, she went over to cook for Willard twice a day, and tried to keep the predators and hounds (as Willard now called everyone who wanted to see him) from entering the house.

It was probably more than she could handle alone, and she quickly found herself resenting his somewhat exaggerated helplessness, sometimes even crying about it once she was back in her apartment. She felt like he was purposely acting childish and weak to draw her back into his house. He’d never really accepted it when she moved to her own place so many years ago. But as helpless as he appeared to be around Rebecca, he was still a fiercely opinionated man whenever the subject of his sister came up.

“Father,” she asked, as she was setting before him a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup, “why don’t you let Vicky come over and cook for you one of these days?”

“You know I hate the sight of her,” he answered, “and she’s a rotten cook.”

“It’s just canned soup. All you have to do is add water.”

“She’d ruin it. Anyway she’s just coming around truffling for my money so she can steal it for those five imbecilic birth defects she squeezed out of her.”

“I happen to like my cousins.”

“You’re relentlessly positive daughter. Could I have some toast please?”

She cooked and cleaned for him and tried not to feel resentful. She was frugal and gave herself the excuse that it would be a waste of money to hire a home attendant. The money was practically hers anyway.

(She was so surprised when she had that thought because she never thought herself guilty of rapacity, but money, she discovered, has a strange way of changing positions once mortality makes itself known. She remembered one of those old Illyria tales about a rich eccentric woman who, because she despised her dead husband so much, decreed in her will that her house and money be burned and her body buried in the old Illyria cemetery, as far away from her husband as possible. But the relatives, uninterested in the wishes of a bitter dead woman, sold the house, divvied up the fortune and burned her body instead. And somehow it was all considered legal.)

Money has its own survival instinct, like an animal, and no matter how many times a day her father stared at his portfolio on the computer screen, which seemed to be his only joy these days, Rebecca couldn’t help but feel, quite guiltily, that what he was looking at was not his, but hers.

But he did surprisingly well as the weeks passed and the new year arrived. He looked better. He said he felt better. The headaches and nausea and the mouth sores were in retreat. With Rebecca supporting him, he was able to take short walks in his back yard — just to his small bare garden at the edge of the lawn and back. He would breath the cold February air deep into his lungs which he was said was “natural chemotherapy.” He said he could feel himself regaining his constitution even though she still had to help him walk from the house to the garden and back.

“Daughter, my body isn’t shutting down anymore. I’ve beaten it.” And then he added, “They’ll never get me,” but like everyone who talks about ‘they’, he didn’t say who they were. Perhaps he meant his sister.

*

A week before Christmas, Rebecca and Julian went shopping at Crocker Park, an Urban Village shopping center with apartments and three storey buildings and streets that go right through the center; all in an attempt to make it feel like a small town. It always made her laugh that a real town like Illyria didn’t even have a Starbuck’s or any branded business, but the “fake” one was always busy and full of the best stores. The major difference, she thought, besides the parking lots, was that these new small towns didn’t have churches.

After Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer and Barnes and Noble, they went to The Cheesecake Factory for a late lunch. Over dessert she told Julian that she needed a vacation and had decided to go to Africa. He answered with an incredulous, “What?” as if it was the craziest idea in the world. “Why would you want to go there?” he asked and she answered, “It’s become a dream of mine.”

“Since when?”

“Since we watched that movie.”

“What movie?”

I had a farm in Africa,” she said in her best Dutch accent.

“But that’s just a movie.”

“I know. But I want to see the real thing.”

“Isn’t it dangerous?”

“Probably a little. There’s always risks.”

“And what about the dirt?”

“Dirt has never bothered me.”

“What about all the germs?”

“Julian stop it. Children are the germiest creatures alive; how can you worry about germs?”

“Because I use hand sanitizer all day long. I swear some of those kids have the plague, except for Little Miss Myers, of course who has the prettiest little hands with clear painted nails.”

Rebecca took another bite of her cheesecake before asking about their favorite fifth grader. “How is the little thing?”

“I’ve almost given up trying to figure him out. For a boy that effeminate to get along with the others so easily — I don’t get it. They never tease him. They let him play with them. But he’s got that purse on his wrist and they never ever attack him for it. It’s so strange it makes me want to tease him.”

“But you wouldn’t.”

“No, of course I wouldn’t.”

They had gotten off the topic but it was her intention to ask him to join her on this trip so she just came out with it. “So would you like to come with me?” she asked.

“Where?”

“To Africa.”

“Oh no,” he answered too quickly, “I mean I can’t afford anything like that.”

“I can pay.”

“No I can’t let you do that. I wouldn’t feel right about it. But what about Orlando? Disney has that safari adventure. I could come down there for a few days and I’m sure it’s a lot safer.”

“I don’t want to do something safe. I want to do something unsafe. “

”Honey, that doesn’t make sense.”

She thought for a moment about what she really wanted and took the last bite of her cheesecake. “I want to feel like it felt in the movie.”

“What feeling was that?”

She wasn’t sure. She wanted to call it freedom, but then it might have been romance. Or love. Probably it was none of those. “I don’t know exactly,” she said, “I want to feel like I’m doing something. That I’m really in the middle of something. Does that make sense?”

“No,” he laughed.

She didn’t try to explain any further and accepted that Julian was not going to join her on this trip. She resigned herself to taking it alone, which was more than a little scary.

Later, she was in the library looking at a book about the flora and fauna in Botswana and she turned the page and came across a photo of a remarkable bird called the Carmine Bee Eater, a bright crimson bird that flies toward wildfires to catch bugs trying to escape the flames. She was thinking about her fear of traveling alone when she read about the brave little crimson birds that flew toward fire and understood quite suddenly that she had wanted Julian as a crutch, and not as a companion.

“You have to be like that bird Rebecca,” she whispered.

Chapter 3


Even though he had felt himself improving in January, Willard Over died in April. His sister immediately became a huge problem for Rebecca, trying to take over the funeral arrangements and behaving as though hers was the more important relationship. The money grubber also wanted to know what provisions had been made for her in her brother’s will, but Rebecca refused to tell her.

One reason Willard had hated his sister was because she was constantly putting on airs. Vicky participated in the genealogy craze and felt that being a Mayflower descendant gave bragging rights to the Overtons (somewhere along the way the name was shortened) that more recent immigrants didn’t have, more recent being a relative term because Vicky also thought that anyone who arrived after the 1790 census was just “trying to take advantage of America’s generosity.”

Vicky was so deluded that she once claimed at a Christmas party that Overbrook Road, the fanciest and wealthiest road in Illyria, was named after the Over Family. This had made Willard roar with laughter and say, “Oh Victoria, you’re such a horse’s ass,” in front of all her other guests.

But the real reason she didn’t let Vicky have a look at the will (which, if Vicky was the slightest bit imaginative and had snuck into his office, she could have found in the top right drawer of his desk), was not only that Vicky was not named in the will itself, but that her father had attached to it what he had titled, “Very Important Codicil,” hand-written, dated only a week prior to his death, and which said, in full legalese jargon, something to the effect that his sister Victoria was entitled to exactly ten pounds of his excrement. The codicil wasn’t written by a lawyer and thankfully, neither notarized nor witnessed.

Without consulting her aunt, Rebecca went to see her old high school friend David Miller who had taken over his father’s funeral home. She was surprised to learn that David had never married, and they had a nice chat before she told David that she wanted cremation and a simple gold urn. After she made her choice she instantly decided that she would take her father’s ashes to Africa and spread them somewhere in the wilderness, far away from the sister and other relations he couldn’t stand.

When she told Vicky later that day that she had chosen cremation it was as if she had just damned Willard to hell. They were in her father’s kitchen, now her’s, standing on either side of the island.

“The Over Family doesn’t do cremationཀ” Vicky loudly insisted.

“Oh please Vicky don’t start with the Over Family dos and don’ts again. You know he didn’t care about things like that, and neither do I.”

“The Over Family doesn’t do cremationཀ” she repeated.

“Why does it matter?”

“He needs a proper burial and a headstone near the family.”

“You can bury the ashes if you want and you can have a headstone. I don’t mind. I’ll give you half the ashes. I’ll call David Miller right now and tell him to put half in an urn for you.”

“What’s the point of burying ashes?”

“What’s the point of burying a body?”

“Oh you are so frustrating Rebecca,” she said after slapping the island counter. “You’re just like him, you always were. Both of you so thick and pig-headed, and mean-spirited too, I don’t mind saying.”

“How dare you? Really Vicky how dare you? In my own house...”

“This is his houseཀ”

“It’s my house now.”

“You don’t even act like you’re sorry he’s deadཀ” Vicky shouted, and stormed out of the house before Rebecca could answer. “And my name is Victoria and I want my copy of the will,” she added just before bursting out the front door.

People who start fights almost always walk away from them, Rebecca thought, rather calmly for how heated the argument was.

Vicky returned later that day of course — her vanity wouldn’t allow her to be absent for the guests that wanted to come by and express condolences. Vicky must have eventually resigned herself to the offer of half the ashes because she made no more noise about it, although David Miller had called her to say that her Aunt had phoned demanding an “investigation.”

After the funeral home delivered the two urns, however, Rebecca decided to play a trick on her aunt, something, she imagined, would please her father in addition to herself.

She went to the Giant Eagle and asked at the butcher’s counter for a large bag of bones — chicken — for soup stock, she said. Once back at her father’s house she experimentally put a few of the bones in a cast iron skillet. She put the skillet into the oven and turned the oven to its self cleaning cycle. The self cleaning cycle was about 700 to 800 degrees which she thought was enough to burn the bones, in a controlled way, down to a fine ash. But the smell was so dreadful it almost made her vomit so she abandoned that idea, aired out the kitchen, and went to the giant pet store at the Ridgefield Mall where she bought a five pound bag of finely ground fish tank gravel, with lots of vibrant neon colors.

Back home she took one of the urns into the backyard and dug a small hole in her father’s tiny garden where the yellow and white spring crocuses were just starting to poke through the ground. This, she then discovered, was the scariest part of her plan. She crossed herself for absolutely no reason, and carefully removed the top from the urn. The cremains were contained in thick plastic bag which was tightly knotted. After struggling to get it open she carefully poured her father’s cremains into the hole. Before covering the ashes with dirt, she took a long look at the “stuff” that had been her father. She was surprised at the appearance, for the ashes were somewhat “chunky” and looked a bit like yellow and off-white sand with tiny bits of black pieces. She assumed the black pieces were the remains of the pine box they used to store him before burning him. The whitish yellow pieces must have been his bones.

Oh, it was so horribleThe only parent she had ever known was this little pyramid of sand now. It was too abstract and the thing they sometimes say at funeral services about “ashes to ashes, dust to dust’‘ really didn’t help her because it didn’t say anything about what took place between those identical states. What had taken place, rather, both good and bad.

Feeling took place, she thought. Ashes — feeling — ashes. Dust — feeling — dust. Generosities. Crimes. We rise up from the dust to feel.

After crying a bit, she gently covered the little pile of his ashes with dirt from the garden and said, “Goodbye Father.” Always formal. She thought about how she had walked him back and forth between the house and this garden. It was like she had been walking him to his grave, then bringing him back one last time as a pile of ashes.

Back inside the house, she carefully poured the fish tank gravel into the bag inside the urn and knotted it the way it had been knotted before. She then sealed the top of the urn with an epoxy glue so that Aunt Vicky, if tempted, could not look inside.

At the grave-side service a few days later, Rebecca was standing next to a tree that was just starting to bud, a bit removed from the service itself. Julian didn’t like funerals so he hadn’t come with her and she stood by herself, separated by a dozen feet from the rest of the mourners. But even at a distance everything about the funeral still pained her. It was such a sad Ohio scene, when they began to sing “Amazing Grace” and could barely be heard above the branches over her head that were swaying in the light wind.

When it came time to place the urn in the ground, Rebecca had to move to the other side of the tree because she didn’t know if she wanted to cry or to laugh or to scream. It had been so hard, these last few weeks with her father, and she realized she might have been taking it all out on her aunt. Why, after all, did she really care about her aunt not having the ashes? She took pity on Vicky then, and after the service she tried to hug her, but Vicky just said, “No no none of that,” and pushed her away as she turned to leave.

*

In August, when she finally had control of her inheritance and was able to afford the expensive trip to Africa, she visited a travel agent. She told him she wanted to go to Botswana to see the Carmine Bee Eaters. The agent handed her some very colorful brochures about the camps she’d be visiting, as well as some flyers about the rules and regulations — no bright colors or camouflage clothing was allowed, only ten kilograms in one piece of soft luggage. It wasn’t until a week before she left and she swallowed her first malaria prevention pill that she felt it deep within that she was actually going to do this. She was going to do it and do it alone.

After swallowing the Lariam, she stared at herself in the mirror, grabbed her pony tail from the force of habit and said, “I still wish you had come, Julian.”

*

“I still wish you had come, Julian,” she thought again, sitting there in the dark in seat 42D and then wondered if her father’s urn was intact in her luggage. They had made her remove the lock in Cleveland and it caused her a bit of anxiety because she wasn’t sure if it was legal to travel with someone’s ashes.

A hint of gray blue light was starting to seep into the cabin, through window shades that had not been completely shut during the abbreviated evening. She put on the headset to listen to some music which she thought was probably Debussy. Yes it was “Claire de Lune.” She looked at the playlist and saw that it was quite extraordinary: “Brahms Intermezzo in A, Opus 118,” “Sanguine Fan,” by Elgar, “Amour Partes,” by Van Wilder, Rossini’s “String Sonata No. 1,” a Slavonic dance by Dvorak. It suddenly occurred to her how absolutely stunning it all was — that she had flown all the way across the ocean in the belly of a technological sky whale, and was now listening to a recording of Debussy while everything around her came back to life.

Welcome back, she thought.

She had a sense then that the visible world was part of the silent background while the music was on top of it. It was like watching a movie that had music but no other sound effects or dialogue. She stared in awe as the people on the plane began to wake and made treks to the bathrooms in the rear of the plane. She felt humbled and tired. How did they do it? What an amazing thingThey all wake and head for the toilet like animals who urinate in the same spot. Trevor Wardman stirred and yawned next to her but didn’t open his eyes. She plugged her nose with her thumb and forefinger, and laughed silently, filled with an unexpected joy about the absurdity of bad breath.

A few window shades were opened by the passengers sitting next to them, and light filled the cabin as if it was pouring into a vacuum. “Claire De Lune” was playing with its floating, trilling, watery sound, and at that moment she suddenly imagined the Carmine Bee Eaters busy along the cliffs near Shakawe.

She saw the fluttering red oiseaux against their muddy cliff background: flying, eating, squabbling, feeding — rust colored chicks sitting in the small holes that pockmark the cliffs; staring out at a world that doesn’t think about them, waiting patiently for parents with delicious dead crickets. Without realizing it, Rebecca shut her eyes, suddenly overcome with sleep, but she still saw them, those bright birds, with scarlet wings and backs: full of unconscious joy of flight and life. Singing. Calling. Did they know, she wondered, how beautiful they are? She watched as the florid birds suddenly stopped fluttering about and, perched on the edge of their mud nests, with others perched on branches that overhung the dusky water, they turned together as one and stared back at her.

Chapter 4


While waiting in the long line to clear passport control in Johannesburg, Rebecca tried to pick up the signs of a foreign world, but it was antiseptic. She didn’t know what she was expecting — she supposed she thought it would be more “African” or something. She sniffed the air a few times to see if she could pick up different scents, but it was air-conditioned and the only thing she could smell was someone’s very slight body odor. It didn’t bother her. The only smells she couldn’t tolerate were cleaning products.

At a picnic one weekend, she had told her old girlfriends that she must have been a bear in a past life, because in addition to her remarkable sense of smell, she had poor eyesight and had always liked “bear food,” such as salmon, berries, fruits and nuts. She’d even, to demonstrate, rubbed her back against a tree. While inching along the line, Rebecca smiled to herself thinking about this good memory and the way her three girlfriends had laughed at her antics that day.

They were in their twenties then. Young. Pretty. Fertile.

When it was finally her turn she stepped up to the counter and noticed immediately that the African immigration officer had a vertical scar which bisected his left eyebrow and continued down, crossing over the peak of his very high cheekbone. He had another scar that bisected the right edge of his upper lip. He had obviously been cut deeply — violently. It scared her a little and made her wonder about his past.

She wondered if he had been hurt during the apartheid years, when the country was so sick with violence and hatred. Or was that all forgotten now? She wondered where he lived; if he lived in a township. She wanted to ask him all sorts of questions about his life, and felt slightly embarrassed that she was thinking so much about this man while she hardly ever had similar thoughts about the minority students in her classroom.

She handed him her passport and answered only, “Just tonight. Tomorrow I fly to Botswana,” when he asked how long she would be staying. “May I please see your eh-tick-it,” he said, and she handed it to him. After peering at it for a moment, he entered some numbers in a computer and finally turned to the first empty page of her passport, slammed it with a stamp and handed it back to Rebecca.

Although there were some bags on the luggage carousel, none of the fifty or so people gathered around it were claiming any of them and no new ones were sliding down the chute. Then Rebecca noticed that a bag on the conveyer above the carousel appeared to be stuck, in one of the turns, blocking everything. No one was doing anything about it.

This was the sort of thing that drove her old friend Joanne totally nuts simply because it delayed her. “Impatient Joanne” would have taken matters into her own hands and jumped right up there to pull the bag out and fix the problem. She remembered the time that she, Joanne, Molly and Shannon had gone to the mall to do some Christmas shopping (before Crocker was built) on some Saturday and on the way back, Route 57 was absolutely packed. Joanne, who was driving, had said, “What are these people doing in my way?” and drove her car up onto the berm and passed all the traffic at a 45 degree angle while the three of them screamed with fear and laughter and all the other drivers beeped their disapproval for not waiting their turn.

But that was a long time ago, before they — the other three — married or went their separate ways. When her father died, they had all called to offer condolences but none suggested getting together for lunch. And she didn’t want to ask because she felt, somehow, in the inferior position. She had complained about it to Julian over the phone.

“Oh hon, those class reunion sort of things don’t work anyway,” he had answered.

“Just for lunch?” she asked, already angry at him but keeping herself calm by shaking her foot. She found that she was increasingly annoyed with Julian, ever since Bruce The Low had called her his fag hag. “We were all very good friends all the way into our late twenties before I met you. I don’t see why they can’t take a single day off from their damned husbands and kids, or wife in Joanne’s case, to have a simple — “

”Listen Rebecca — “

”— No Julian, I’m sorry — not this time.”

“HoneyIt doesn’t matter what they were or they weren’t. Don’t let it make you bitter. You can’t revive an old dead thing. Once it’s dead, it’s dead. Didn’t you read Frankenstein in high school?”

“Yes of course — “

”Hey remember that movie? ‘What knockersOh... zenk you doktor.’”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about Julian,” she said, feeling her impatience rise even further and with her foot shaking ever faster. A movie wasn’t what she needed to talk about.

“Gene Wilder. Teri Garr. Young Frankenstein. He’s talking about the door knockers and says, ‘What knockersཀ’ Teri Garr thinks he’s admiring her tits and answers, ‘Oh... zenk you doktor.’”

“Oh. Yes, that’s very funny, Julian,” she said, unamused.

“Oh come on Rebecca, you’re taking — “

”God damn it Julian, they deserted meWhat do you think I’m talking about? I’m not talking about Frankenstein or Dracula or some movieThey used to love me and now they don’tI’m not sure anyone doesཀ”

There was a horrible stone of silence, while she tried to pull herself together. She wanted to cry, but held it inside until she was able to continue in a calmer tone.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s okay,” Julian said, but she could tell it wasn’t okay.

“They moved on,” she continued, but calmly now and explanatory. “They married. They had children. But they didn’t include me in — their lives. I love kids. I spend all day with kids, almost every single day of the year. But they didn’t even think about including me in their married lives, their families. But I would have included them if I had gotten married. I would have found a way. What did they think? That I was a lonely spinster? They turned me into the stereotype of an unmarried woman. The cat lady. And I don’t even have a cat.”

Julian didn’t speak for a moment. He may have been thinking about how to phrase his question. “Are you sure that isn’t just what you think about yourself?”

“What?”

“You don’t know what they think about you. They’re doing their own thing. They might even think you’re better off than they are because you’re free. It’s probably you who’s worried about being single.”

“Me?”

“You’re the only person who thinks you’re a cat lady.”

She didn’t answer him because he was mostly right. It’s what she thought of herself.

And maybe, she thought as she watched other people’s luggage pass, the complaints to Julian about her old girlfriends was just a surreptitious way of trying to tell him that she was feeling dissatisfied in their relationship, without saying so directly. It had been her experience that relationship talk was, generally, absolutely terrifying to men. The word alone made them act like they left the car running in the driveway and had to go turn it off.

She probably would have thought about this some more but then Trevor, her foul-breathed neighbor from the plane found her.

“Hi there, still waiting?” he asked.

“Yes, unfortunately,” she said.

“I just had a cig in the loo,” he said, and Rebecca noticed he was grinning like a bad schoolboy. “I said to myself they can give me a bloody ticket if they want but I haven’t had a cig in 24 hours. These damned airports. They force you into withdrawal. It’s cruel I tell you. There was no one around anyway.”

“So you successfully smoked? Congratulations are in order.” As a joke she extended her hand to shake his.

“Thank you very much,” he said, shaking hers.

Rebecca could tell that he had also just brushed his teeth after his cigarette and had dabbed some cologne on his neck — because she could smell both tobacco and mint, as well as a pleasant Old Spice kind of scent. She loved the smell of men, even if they were smokers — even if they smoked cigars or pipes. There wasn’t, probably, a single man she had ever met that she didn’t love the smell of. It had been quite a long time since she had been able to smell a man up close. Years.

It was interesting now how much more attractive Trevor Wardman had suddenly become, now that he had Old Spiced himself up a bit. They chatted until someone finally came and fixed the jam in the conveyer. She caught her bag which, ironically, turned out to be the one causing the jam, and prepared to say goodbye to Trevor and wish him good luck with his television show, but before she was able to leave, Trevor asked her, with a somewhat hesitant voice, if she would like to have dinner.

“I could give you a quick, whirlwind tour of Josie, if you’d like,” he said, “show you some of the neighborhoods. Or the mansions if you want. And there’s a nice place I think you’d like where they’ve got great African food and they play jazz all night.”

“Mansions?”

“You’ll see.”

She didn’t know what he meant, but immediately perked up at the idea of having a dinner date. It made her feel international, cosmopolitan and exciting. It was a silly feeling but she was enjoying it. Why not? It was the adventure of having, for a short while, a life larger than oneself.

She gave Trevor the name of her hotel, “The Road Lodge,” and he laughed, which caused her to pause. He didn’t explain why he laughed but promised to call her in a few hours. He’d give her time to have a shower, he said, but they should try to catch what they could during the remaining daylight. He was very proud of himself and she liked the way he looked pleased.

She threw her duffle bag over her shoulder, waved goodbye and left, feeling bouncy about this unexpected date. She followed the other passengers through the declarations area and walked through a set of opaque sliding doors to come out upon a throng of people, who stood in large groups behind metal rails in a kind of gauntlet, and stared at her as she emerged from the confinement of international transit. Most of the faces were black, of course, and she had expected it. But the sudden shock of race made her realize that she was, finally, in the third world.

Chapter 5


Josie


“It’s impossible,” she said aloud, “that there could be a smaller hotel room anywhere in the world.”

There was almost no floor to walk on. The area that was called the “bathroom” wasn’t a room at all — it should have been called the “bath corner.” It’s no wonder Trevor had laughed. This was absolutely terrible. Cheap but terrible.

The shuttle drive to the Road Lodge had been short — it was an airport-convenient hotel only ten minutes away — and she had seen absolutely nothing of Johannesburg. The others on the van had stared straight ahead and looked like zombies between meals. The hotel property was enclosed by a 15 to 20 foot chain link fence with loops of barbed wire at the top. The fellow who had checked her in was a rather short young white man with a very clipped accent in a pressed dark blue uniform and was as efficient, she thought, as a new machine. She had asked him if there was a hotel restaurant to have some lunch. There wasn’t and he suggested she use the vending machine which she would have found rude, if he hadn’t said it with such perfect politeness.

“No I’m sorry madam, there’s nothing but the vending machine, I’m afraid.”

“Oh. Well is there anywhere I can walk to where I can get some lunch?”

“No madam, I’m sorry, there’s nothing, and it’s far too dangerous to walk anywhere. The hotel can’t be held responsible for your safety if you go outside the perimeter of the premises.”

“Oh. Alright then,” she had said, more confused than anything. She took her key and left the efficient young man to help the next customer which he was already doing. She found her room, tossed her bag on the bed, then sidled over to the window and opened it to try to clear out the choking smell of the cleaning products. For someone with an acute sense of smell, walking into any place that claimed to be bacteria-free was like walking into room full of mustard gas. The window swung open from the bottom only about 30 degrees, but it would help clear out the cleaning fumes.

She sidled again between the bed and the bureau to a spot where there was a tiny bit of standing room — probably what they called the “dressing room” — to check her bag to make sure her things were okay.

And this was when she discovered that the urn containing her father’s ashes was gone.

She started looking through her things. She emptied her purse, knowing it wouldn’t fit in there. She removed all the clothes from her bag. She sat on the bed, mentally retraced her path, and tried to remember the last time she saw the urn.

She could remember seeing it sitting on the dining table back home. She had put it there so she wouldn’t forget it. And she thought she had checked for it in New York, but she was so flustered by that horrible taxi driver maybe she hadn’t. She had to take a yellow taxi from the LaGuardia Airport to the Kennedy Airport, and she was a bit tense because the driver was very gruff, spoke English as a second language and was constantly talking to someone on a speaker that was hanging from his ear. She exited the cab before paying him, which was the wrong thing to do she discovered and the driver had jumped out, inexplicably angry, screaming that she hadn’t paid him. She apologized — obviously she wasn’t going to run anywhere — and quickly paid, but he wasn’t placated. He demanded an extra dollar before opening the trunk, and after she gave him one, he removed her bag and furiously tossed it on the ground, then glared at her as he returned to his car.

And then she had checked it, hadn’t she, before checking in?

No she hadn’t. She had been worried about missing the flight so she hurried into the building and forgot to check.

She decided to call the front desk. The Efficient Young Man answered.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “this is Rebecca Over in room 118. I’ve lost something very important and I wondered if it might have fallen out of my bag or if someone left it at the front desk. It’s a gold colored urn, about ten inches high.

“I’m sorry Madam, nothing’s been turned in.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, quite sure.”

“Because it’s very important.”

“I’m sure it’s extremely important Madam but I can assure you there’s nothing here and there’s nothing been turned in. You said it was gold?”

“Gold colored.”

“Was it in your luggage?”

“Yes.”

“Then it was probably stolen by one of the airport baggage handlers.”

His answer, so matter of fact about the crime, was deflating. She wanted to say “But it wasn’t real gold,” but realized how useless it would be. There was nothing she could do.

She sat on the bed and wondered if Trevor Wardman was really going to call her. She needed to shower. She crossed the room and stuck her head out of the window to try to breathe some real air, instead of the lung shredding disinfected air of the room. Look at this, she thought, I must look absolutely ridiculous. Anyone who saw me would wonder if I was a lunatic, or think that I was trying to escape some sort of prison.

After thinking about it a little while, or perhaps because she was able to breath clean fresh air with her head stuck out the window, she realized she wasn’t really that distraught over losing her father’s ashes. It was just a shock. It had been long enough that she no longer thought of the ashes as being ‘him’, as when she had that trouble burying the other half in the backyard.

“Enough of this,” she said aloud, her head still sticking out of the hotel room window, “It’s time to give Julian a call. Let him know I’ve arrived.”

She calculated that it was around 1 p.m. back in Ohio, so she called his cell phone.

“Hellooo? Rebecca? It says ‘international call’ so I hope that’s you, sweetie?”

“Julian? Can you hear me?”

“I can hear you just fine Rebecca. Don’t shout. Where are you?”

“The flight was very long and I didn’t sleep at all. How are you?”

“I’m the same as I was when I dropped you off at the airport yesterday. Can you hear me okay?”

“Oh wonderful. It’s warm and the days appear to be very long. It’s only just now starting to get dark.”

“RebeccaCan you hear me?”

“Yes, I can hear you just fine. Listen, Julian something’s happened.”

“What was that? Hang on. I’m going under a bridge. Might fade... but... anyway... Rebecca? Hello? What did you say?”

“I have bad newsཀ” she shouted.

“What? Are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you? Are you in the hospital? What happened?”

“I’m fine Julian, I just... I lost the ashes.”

“Oh my God. You lost his ashes? How?”

“I don’t know. I think someone stole them, or stole the urn.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Well I’ll ask if I can check the shuttle bus but that’s about all I can do. The hotel’s in the middle of nowhere and they said it’s dangerous to walk anywhere.”

“How can it be dangerous if it’s in the middle of nowhere?”

“That’s just what they said.”

“Well I’m sorry Rebecca. I know you really wanted to do that for him.”

“Thanks Julian, but why are you sorry?”

She could hear Julian sigh at the other end, annoyed by her stupid question. “Stop. Forget it. That was just a dumb question. Thank you Julian. That’s all I meant to say. But listen I’d better go. I’m sure this is costing ten dollars a minute. I just wanted to let you know I made it.”

“Well you be careful, okay sweetie?”

“I will.”

“And have a good time. And don’t worry about your father’s ashes, he won’t know and he won’t care and I’m sure he’d forgive you anyway. Anyway, I can’t wait to see the pictures. So take lots. If they have Email there try to send some.”

“I will.”

“Miss you already,” he said.

“Me too.”

She felt reassured after speaking with Julian. The hotel phone rang as soon as she had replaced the receiver and she answered it. It was Trevor, asking if she was ready for her tour.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she said, her stomach suddenly turning over in knots.

*

Trevor took her first, while there was still some daylight, to a wealthy section of Johannesburg which he referred to as the mansions. They were enormous homes built on huge pieces of land and every single home was behind very tall white concrete walls with layers of barbed and electrified wire at the top, making it hard to see anything but the upper floors and roofs. Most had a staffed guard’s station at the driveway entrance. Though there were lots of light purple flowering Jacaranda trees which were beautiful to look at, the appearance of the stark white concrete walls on either side of the road, stretching off to the distant ends, gave her a feeling she couldn’t identify — something to do with a slightly guilty feeling she had that she was spying on the rich. Black men and women in blue or green or pink uniforms walked between the road and the walls. They seemed very distinctively on the “outside.” She wondered if this was her first visible encounter with apartheid. But she didn’t know.


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