Jack Canon's American Destiny

Friday, May 3, 2013

Widow Woman by Julia Tagliere (Excerpt 1)

Chapter One

The salt-bleached pavement unwound behind the brand-new ‘62 Dodge Dart 440 wagon, borrowed from our neighbor to save on the airfare to Minneapolis. His unexpected kindness eliminated our need to rent a car for all the driving we’d be doing over the next few days. Flying back would have been easier but I’d been in no condition to protest.

I fixed my attention out the window, counting the sooty, aging snow berms lining the roadside. My mother’s ashes, nestled in the urn at my feet, overshadowed everything as we made the one-way trip back to Graceville from her home in nearby tiny Cokato.

Tense and hungry, I rooted through my box of peanut M&M’s for a yellow one. I held it up to the window, masochistically focusing on the little makeshift sun that hurt my eyes almost as much as the blue sky.

I popped it into my mouth and Peter murmured, “Breakfast of champions,” and held out his hand. “Though Wheaties would be healthier.”

“At least it’s not a cigarette,” I said, dropping a red one into his open palm.

We shared the rest of the box in silence. I closed my eyes, but the memories relentlessly pinched and prodded at me:

The first desperate call from Catherine, Mom’s best friend.

The neighbors’ voices, urgent, in the background.

The endless long-distance wait for word.

Peter, across the room, not knowing how, or whether, to console me.

The second call. We lost her. She’s gone.


I turned my attention back to the window, concentrating on keeping my cheeks dry. I tried to doze, the slideshow of memories continuing their assault behind my eyelids.

First I heard Mom’s throaty laugh, erupting over one of her corny puns, shared around the bonfire. I closed my eyes, smelling the smoke. About to leave for college, I was scared; she was not.

“I’m so proud of you. You’re going to have such adventures. I wish I could go with you,” she whispered, hugging me fiercely.

The memory shifted to a sudden taste on my tongue of our regular weekend breakfasts: feasts of blueberry pancakes, burnt bacon, and inexhaustible chatter.

Mom’s last letter had arrived at our house in Nebraska the day she died.

Come home, Audrey. You can stay here for a few days until you figure things out with Peter. Even with Mom gone I’d still considered going back, to think things through. But could I call it home anymore without her there? There was always Catherine—

“How much farther?” Peter’s voice startled me awake.

I rubbed my swollen eyes and squinted out the windshield at Catherine’s car, poking along ahead of us. We were now onto the next step in this mind-boggling process. I had, with Catherine’s help, planned the funeral long distance, and as soon as we arrived we held a memorial service to honor Mom. Friends, co-workers, her former students of all ages, neighbors, and townspeople all attended and said nice things about Mom, things I had forgotten or had never known, but which eased my saddened heart.

Now we were completing the most final of steps—scattering her ashes.

“I don’t know, Peter. I haven’t been up here in years,” I yawned, exhausted and disoriented.

“I thought your grandparents lived here,” Peter said.

“Yes, but after they died, we never came up here anymore. I think it was too hard for Mom.”

That had been a terrible time for her, my grandparents’ dying in a car accident so close on the heels of her divorce from my father, Hank. Catherine’s news last week that Mom had held onto her parents’ farm outside of Graceville had taken me by surprise.

Ahead of us, Catherine’s car—my mother’s old Plymouth—slowed.

“Where is she going?” Peter muttered, hunching over the steering wheel. “Can you even see a road?” Catherine stopped completely before easing the car onto a narrow dirt road dug deep with the ruts of generations of wagon wheels.

James, our neighbor, had generously lent us his ‘baby’ for the trip; I winced as brambles scraped the car at the turn. I desperately did not want to return her to him battered and scratched up.

Another unexpected flash of memory fluttered through my head and I saw myself wandering this road, a bucket of raspberries dangling from one of my hands and my mother’s warm, callused palm tightly clasping the other. Looking at the monstrously overgrown bushes scratching at the car windows, I wondered if the berries would still taste as sweet as they did in my memory.

At last, Catherine’s car jounced to a stop at the crest of a hill; from there, I could see the battered remains of what must have been my grandparents’ farmhouse. So much time had passed I could no longer remember.

Peter turned off the car and reached over the seat to grab our coats. I knew Minnesota’s bright blue skies of early spring were deceptive, fooling you just long enough to cost you a frostbitten finger or toe. Peter waited for me to get out, but I hesitated, my eyes fixed on the urn at my feet.

I don’t want to do this. Please don’t make me do this.

“Are you ready?” Peter asked.

No. I will never be ready.

I sat still, reminding myself how to breathe.

“Take whatever time you need.” Peter squeezed my arm then climbed out and walked over to greet Catherine and Pastor Alan, who were getting out of Catherine’s car.

To hell with M&Ms; I need a cigarette.

Catherine greeted Peter politely enough, but she quickly turned, waved and smiled, and headed straight for me. She’d covered her long, silver hair in a bright blue scarf. Catherine’s prominent cheekbones, wide mouth, and spunky elegance always reminded me of Claudette Colbert, the actress from the original Cleopatra movie—not the remake currently under way with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Finally, the urn’s spell was broken. Happy to see her, I flung open the door and threw myself clumsily into her arms, almost knocking her to the ground. Those arms may have appeared delicate, but they were strong, enfolding me like two great wings. She’d been Mom’s best friend most of my life and now she was mine, too.

After a few moments, I pulled away, touching her scarf lightly. “This is pretty,” I said, furtively attempting to smooth my own tangle of dark curls.

A small smile curved her lips. “It was your mom’s. Well, I gave it to her, but she never wore it. I thought she’d appreciate my wearing color today. She always hated black.”

Nodding, I gulped the bracing air. I reached down and lifted the urn from the car floor, fortified by Catherine’s presence. I can do this now, I thought. When I turned, Pastor Alan and Peter were standing behind me.

“It’s beautiful here, Audrey,” Alan said and stepped in to hug me. He was a bear of a man, dwarfing even my lanky frame by comparison.

Brushing my hair away from my face with my free hand, I saw what Alan meant. Up here, away from the blank grayness of the road, broad strokes of unexpected color competed with the brilliant sky for my attention: verdant evergreens, impossibly white snow, and the black stream winding through the trees. Mom and I had never returned here together, but as I drank in the still beauty of her parents’ home I began to understand better the full extent of her loss.

Peter cleared his throat. I turned in time to see Catherine arch one perfectly groomed eyebrow at him. That arch was about as aggressive as she ever became, but signaled loud and clear that Catherine was not inclined to forgive Peter’s betrayal of me. She was deeply displeased but, as she would say, too well bred to show more.

“Are you ready, Audrey?” she asked.

I nodded, shifting the urn to my other arm, and our little group began the climb up the hillside to the spot described in Mom’s instructions.

The urn felt heavier than I expected, although I still couldn’t fathom how it possibly contained the whole of my mother’s being. Maybe the crematorium had shorted us part of her, figuring that in our grief, we’d never notice?

Peter walked ahead of me, crunching through the light crust of lingering snow cover. When I stumbled briefly, he offered me his hand. I clung to the urn instead, the way I used to cling to Mom’s leg as a child. We climbed in silence to the spot where we would scatter her ashes to the winds that circled the hills, waiting for her.

I had called my dad, Hank, to ask him if he wanted to join us. He’d declined, saying he’d meet us at Mom’s house in Cokato when we returned. My adult relationship with him was a work in progress. Mom and Hank divorced when I was thirteen. A series of battles between them continued over one thing or another, punctuating my high school years with alternating bouts of silence and shouting.

Hank’s absence from our group was disappointing, but did not surprise me. How did you marry someone, have a child with her, and then cut her out of your life like that?

Could I ever do that? I wondered, suddenly painfully aware of Peter’s presence. Watching him climb ahead of me, I remembered my last talk with Mom and Catherine and flushed at recalling the pain and embarrassment of sharing his betrayal. I’m not done needing you, Mom, I whispered silently to the urn in my arms.

The brisk winds picked up strength, stinging my face as we walked. Having lived in Nebraska for the past several years, the brutality of a Minnesota wind came as a shock. By the time we finally reached the clearing Mom had chosen, my cheeks felt raw. We stopped at last and stood looking through the ring of white birch trees onto the tiny river below.

I lingered. In a few moments, my mother would become a part of this, and yet no longer be a part of anything. I wanted to delay that moment for as long as possible.

Peter cleared his throat a second time. He was right: It was time. One by one, the others expectantly turned to me. Were they waiting for me to speak? Alarmed, I turned to Pastor Alan. He nodded understandingly and cleared his throat.

“Audrey, Catherine, Peter, we have climbed this hill together today to lay to rest the mortal remains of Joan Margaret Foster.”

As Pastor Alan opened his Bible and began to read aloud, the urn grew heavier in my arms, as if Mom’s ashes were expanding, taking on new life. How could they be this heavy? Perspiration dampened the collar of my coat, sending a shiver rippling across my neck.

Pastor Alan finished Mom’s chosen reading, the Twenty-Third Psalm, and turned to me. “Audrey, did you want to say anything?”

Sudden panic stung my eyes. I avoided looking at Catherine, fearing I couldn’t get through this if I saw my grief reflected in her eyes.

I looked up at the bluer-than-blue sky as if Mom were up there, hoping she was. “I just want to say, Mom, that…I love you. I miss you so much. I always will. Thanks for being my mom. You were the best.”

Frustrated at my mediocre farewell, I turned away. Peter tried to pull me into his arms, but Catherine moved first, folding me protectively into her arms, her shoulders shaking.

For long moments, only the hum of the swaying birch trees broke the silence, whispering a dirge for my mother. Eventually, Peter gave another little cough.

Stepping back from Catherine, I opened the urn, startled by the sight of a silken, drawstring pouch. When I wrapped my fingers around it, it felt full of coarse sand or cement. That’s what I thought, at first: The funeral parlor had played a cruel trick. No wonder the urn felt so heavy. Then I realized with a grim start that it was no joke: that bag of sand or cement or ashes was all that was left of my mother.

It took me several attempts to widen the pouch’s mouth. As I fumbled with the strings, I realized how much I’d romanticized the concept of scattering Mom’s ashes: I’d envisioned her floating off into the sapphire sky, dissipating on the breeze, like a dandelion gone to seed. The awful reality entailed upending the pouch a little at a time, shaking her remains unceremoniously into the brittle, brown grass at my feet. When I’d emptied the pouch, I couldn’t stop staring at the chunky, grey dust clumped on top of the dead weeds and wildflowers.

Suddenly, I wondered what to do. Shove the pouch in my coat pocket? Crumple it up and throw it in the garbage back at Mom’s house? My stomach jolted. What if a few flecks of Mom still clung inside it? What parts of her would they be? Her hand? Her smile?

My suffering ended quickly, as Catherine gently slipped the pouch from my fingers, carefully folding it. She clasped it to her chest with one hand, squeezing my hand with the other.

“I’m so sorry, Audrey. Your mom was truly special. I’m going to miss her very much.” Catherine started crying inconsolably; we both were.

Feeling Peter’s hand on my shoulder, I turned. This time, he surprised me and succeeded in pulling me into his arms. So soon after seeing his arms around another woman, I wanted to resist having his arms around me, but in that moment of supreme weakness, I yielded. I enjoyed it, and hated myself for it.

“I’m sorry, too, Audrey. I’m so sorry,” he murmured into my ear. I knew he meant it, but in his voice I heard the echoes of his hundreds of other apologies as well, which only served to diminish the one I needed the most at that moment.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Catherine’s grim expression as she worked to regain her composure. I remembered her almost laughable attempt at hardness when Mom shared the news of Peter’s transgression.

“That bastard!” she’d written huffily. “That’s the last time he’s getting any of my red velvet cake!” she’d added, in a postscript to Mom’s last letter. It wasn’t unusual that Mom and I had shared the news with her—Catherine was like a second mother to me and I’d appreciated her feisty reply.

She didn’t understand why Peter came. I didn’t quite understand myself, except that everything happened so quickly, one disaster after another, that I didn’t know how to act anymore, didn’t know what to do. Peter stepped up right when I’d needed him to take charge.

Pastor Alan touched my elbow, and I pulled away from Peter to face him. “We’ll be at the cars when you’re ready, Audrey. Take whatever time you need,” he said kindly.

Though I couldn’t see it in his eyes the way I could in Catherine’s, I wondered if the pastor knew about Peter, too. Had Mom and Catherine told him? I didn’t necessarily want everyone to know about it, at least, not until I’d figured out what to do next.

Before I joined the others at the cars, I turned and looked back one more time at the ash clumps that were the last remains of my mother, the one person in the world who might have been able to help me figure out the mess my life had suddenly become. Why did you leave me, Mom? Why now, when I need you most?

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Genre – Women’s Fiction

Rating – PG13

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Teena in Toronto said...

I enjoyed this book :)


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