The saltwater stung my lips as I sped down the highway, edgy from the bitter gas station coffee I’d pounded throughout the ride, rushing to meet the body of a man who was already dead. My mother beat me to the coroner’s office.
“You don’t want to see that,” she told me. “His body looked so small. It didn’t even look like him,” she said.
His apartment was littered with sentimentalities: a box of old photos scattered across the dining table; a hideous porcelain lamp with a base shaped like a bowl of fruit that had once graced the apartment he shared with my mother; the dishes from my parents’ marriage, an institution that had been abandoned fifteen years prior. I took a three tiered black metal basket and the black bear statue I gave him for Father’s Day when I was six.
As we drove the cat to the shelter, I sat in silence. My mother tried to comfort me with all the reasons that this was the best decision, but we both knew that this dusty drive to the shelter was a funeral march. The old tortoiseshell, weary and violent after being neglected and abused by a decaying alcoholic, was not likely to be adopted. Her name was Stripe. She was my seventh birthday gift from him, and twelve years later, we were dropping her at her execution.
That evening, we returned to our cheap motel. As we pushed the door open, the radio played a song in Spanish–the lyrics were about loving the dead.
The first night in the motel, some men were ogling my mother and I as we moved our things into the room, and the anger inside of me flared something fierce. I nearly started a fight when I asked if they had something better to do than stare at us.
“Honey, I can’t protect you,” she told me, as if it was news.
My pantyhose pinched uncomfortably under my black and white polka dotted pencil skirt, already sticky with sweat. It wasn’t quite summer in Sacramento yet, but late spring was already seeing hot days that made the nylon sausage skins encasing my legs untenable. A mall-scented, air conditioned wave hit me as I opened the door, and I beelined to the left; the Johnny Rockets was calling to me on my brief midday respite from corporate administrative hell, and I came prepared to take the fries and run.
My lunches were often spent idly lying in the grass by the parking lot; I never knew what to do with the mandatory half hour. It seemed like one more obstacle to my daily goal, which was to get out of there and head home as quickly as possible. Since my father had died, months before, idle time was more of a curse than a blessing. It was just more time spent not knowing what to do with my hands.
I placed my order at the counter, and as I awkwardly waited, I shifted my weight back and forth between my black pumps. Anxious. Always anxious. As I took a deep breath, my ears tuned in to the song playing in the restaurant.
Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt
As the server leaned forward to hand me my fries, I burst into tears.
Some people claim there’s a woman to blame,
But I know it’s nobody’s fault
My father was a Jimmy Buffet fan, and suddenly, here I was, in public, awash in salt water because of this heinous song. I threw my cash across the counter, took the paper bag from the startled server, and jetted out the door.
On the third day, we drove to his storage unit. My mother paid the back rent to the couple that owned the storage place.
“Best come with me,” the older gentleman, half of the couple, said to her. “It’s a bit of a doozy to get there.”
My mother climbed into his golf cart and his wife opened the gate so I could follow in my car (another relic from my father, essentially stolen: an obligation that hadn’t seen a payment in over a year). As I opened the metal framed door, I wondered what my father could possibly have in his storage unit. What had he deemed worth saving in the wake of the recession that devastated his business and eventually himself?
At the door, I turned to watch the golf cart putter down the outdoor aisle, passing one identical beige metal door after the next. I felt a painful prick on my right index finger; somehow, in my distraction, my hand got caught in the locking mechanism of the door. The gaping metal hole held my hand and I sharply pulled it away, eager to find what my father had hidden behind his rented beige door.
As I stepped into the parking lot, I looked down to find a pool of blood forming in my palm.
The things I own that belonged to my father are so few they can be counted, and they are my greatest treasures: the black bear statue; the drawing I gave him when I was five; his guitar picks; his dishes; the photos from his teenage European backpacking adventure; a few other odds and ends. Any time one of these precious items I still possess has been lost or damaged, I morph into the nineteen year old girl crying out, sitting on the floor of her kitchen, punching the wall until her knuckles bruise because she just found out her dad is dead.
There are some things that cannot be taken from me–the half inch scar on my right index finger, Jimmy Buffet, the traditions we started–and for that I am grateful.
The absurdity of grief is not something they tell you about–how the smallest, dumbest things will crumble you, even years later. They don’t tell you about the taste of blood on your tongue. They don’t tell you the extent of the rage–the rage against the robbery of your loved one, the rage against your loved one for having the audacity to die, and the rage against a world that continues to spin, indifferent to the gaping, human shaped hole left behind after they burn the body. They don’t tell you that mourning is a visceral process that jerks and stalls, like a stick shift you haven’t yet mastered. They don’t tell you that the transmission of this sorrow car is fucked, and no matter how good you get at maneuvering the gears, you will always eventually find yourself there, jerking back and forth, stranded somewhere dark with a bad case of whiplash.
written august 2015
Also published on Medium.