For someone who’s been to New Jersey only a handful of times, I have a long history with the Garden State. I’m visiting it now because my Aunt Velma is dying. The cancer’s giving us just enough time to say goodbye.
My father sits across from me at a steakhouse. We always rendezvous at a steak or waffle place and have our syrup- or catsup-stained conversations before checking in to a cheap motel. His eyes are red from crying.
“The doctor said I broke a blood vessel,” he says, “wiping my eyes too hard.”
He arrived yesterday and has already been to see my aunt, his only sister.
“She looks bad, Son.”
A Bon Jovi song plays at the bar. The food arrives: sirloin and chops and extra saccharine for Dad’s unsweetened tea. I have my own bad news: my wife and I are getting a divorce. I lay it all out for him: my negligence; my wife’s loss of faith in me and our marriage; how I’ve taken full responsibility for making her feel unwanted, unloved; how we’ve had sex only twice in the last two years.
“Well,” my father says, his jowls jiggling to the rhythm of his sawing steak knife, “it takes two to tango.”
Not that my father was light on his feet when it came to the matrimonial dance. He was always hustling: preaching sermons on Sunday, selling insurance during the week. My mother felt neglected and eventually split, leaving my brother and me for Dad to raise. I always vowed not to repeat my father’s mistakes: to pay attention, to make my marriage last longer than the sixteen years his did. Now mine is just shy of six and already terminal.
“When did you know your marriage was dead?” I ask my father.
“I think it was a couple of months after she’d left. She called and asked me to take her out to dinner.” My father says he was hopeful and took her to a fancy restaurant. My mother complimented the meal, got up, and walked out. “She told me later she’d wanted to see if there was anything still there,” he says, “and there wasn’t.”
I poke at my sweet potato. I was just a kid and didn’t know how much he hurt, and for how long, and how hard he tried to spare my brother and me the pain.
“I prayed for years that God would lift the burden,” he says, “and one day, all of a sudden, he did.”
“I prayed that God would touch my wife’s heart,” I say.
My father, knowing my ungodliness, says, “The Lord can’t hear you until you tell him you’re sorry. It’s like talking into a phone that’s out of order.”
Aunt Velma’s neighborhood looks just the way it did when I spent the summer here in 1977: a horseshoe-shaped cul-de-sac of middle-class homes with a dead-end sign at the entrance. I was a nineteen-year-old California virgin with a big pot habit. I remember walking these streets one night, stoned and barefoot, feeling my heart beating alarmingly fast, sure I’d been infected by my roach clip — a surgical clamp I’d lifted from the hospital where my Uncle Spike worked. He’d gotten me a summer job there vacuuming dust from wall air-conditioning units, and when I’d found the silver clamp in a jar of pink solution, I’d figured it was sanitized. But my heart was pounding, and the marijuana paranoia had me believing I’d contracted an incurable disease. I was quickstepping around the block, muttering, “Slow down, slow down.”
My father knocks on Aunt Velma’s door, and Uncle Spike answers it. For an eighty-year-old man, Spike still looks tough and sinewy in his tight white T-shirt, his face cleanshaven despite weeks of deathbed duty. His expression reminds me of a 3-D portrait of Jesus my father once owned, in which the Savior could look either compassionate or menacing depending on where you stood. Spike and I fumble with the uncertainty of a handshake or a hug. We decide to hug.
While my father goes into the bedroom to see his sister, I stay in the kitchen with Uncle Spike, who’s laying out pills and morphine patches. “They’ll be in there awhile,” he says with a hint of a smile. “You know those two — always talking to cover up their insecurities.”
Two decades ago Uncle Spike moved away to the Poconos, where he lived in a trailer and grew ginseng, but he and my aunt never divorced; they stayed married on paper so that she could keep getting benefits as the spouse of a retired military man. Now he’s staying in her basement, tending to the woman who is still his wife, as far as the government is concerned.
“The government killed ginseng growers over here,” he tells me. “Too many regulations. Can’t harvest in five years anymore. Have to wait ten.” He holds up a jar of something. “Grow this for the Germans now,” he says. “Goldenseal. Good for all kinds of stuff.”
I remember clearing several acres of land for him on weekends that summer of 1977. I worked alongside his son Buzz, my cousin who’d gone AWOL from the army and had just gotten out of the stockade. The land-clearing was a cover for Buzz’s real source of income: a pot crop over the hill. Uncle Spike pretended not to know about it, but when Buzz harvested the plants, Spike got his cut.
Uncle Spike says my aunt might last another week, maybe two. “Pneumonia could take her before the cancer does. Her lungs are pretty weak from the mastectomy and then all that radiation.”
He starts the blender, stops it, and pours purple sludge into a pair of pint glasses.
“Try some of this,” he says. “Ginseng from Korea, China, and Russia. Got to be a mix of all three. No good otherwise.”
I wait for him to drink first; then I gulp it down.
Before we got here, my father told me to “keep it light.” My aunt is self-conscious about all the attention. In fact, she won’t see anyone until her daughter-in-law, Buzz’s wife, stops by and touches up her makeup. Vanity is a trait she shares with my father, who still colors his hair in his eighties.
I walk into the bedroom expecting to see the death mask my mother wore when she was dying: sunken, dry, ashen. Mom was embarrassed by the inconvenience of death, her eyes expressing some kind of apology. But Velma doesn’t look too bad from where I stand. Maybe it’s the rosy red lipstick and patches of rouge, or her air of officious pride, like a debutante trying not to cough at the cotillion.
“Hello, hon,” she croaks. “Spikey,” she yells to my uncle, “did you take that thing to the bank yet?”
He says something from the kitchen.
“It’s nice that Uncle Spike’s helping you like this,” I say.
“Well,” she says, “I was there for him after his bypass.”
My aunt and my father both speak with a Southern drawl, despite the fact that neither of them has lived in the South for more than fifty years. I hold her hand and sit on a bedside commode. Up close, I can see the gray pallor of her skin, the blue veins running like rivulets from her temples. The newspaper is on her lap. “Rosa Parks Buried,” reads the headline.
“That reminds me of the time I visited your father in California,” Velma says. “We were going to see a play in LA, but those Rodney King riots messed everything up.”
“What was the play?” I ask.
“Driving Miss Daisy. I love that Morgan Freeman,” my aunt says. “But I think another colored fellow was going to drive Miss Daisy.”
It’s the same kind of innocent, ignorant remark my father makes. He has a friend from Iran, a mustachioed man who manages a local hotel. My father calls him “Saddam.” “Doesn’t he look just like Saddam Hussein?” my father asked when he introduced us, an affectionate arm around the man’s shoulder.
I notice the leather-bound book of Scriptures my father has given Velma on the nightstand.
“It’s all categorized,” my aunt says, picking it up. “Really helpful.”
She has told my father it’s not the dying that bothers her so much as the uncertainty about what happens next.
“She’s afraid God’s not going to be there,” my father said to me. “But don’t let on that you know about that.”
So I don’t. Instead I thank her for the summer of 1977.
Her face flushes with fond memory. “That was such a fun summer, wasn’t it?” she says, and she sighs gently. “I just wanted to give you something you’d never had before.”
“Well, you sure did that.” I laugh.
She laughs, too, her exhalations whistling like a departing train until she coughs and stops. “I’m so tired,” she says with eyes closed.
I bend to kiss her cheek, but she’s already asleep, Rosa Parks in one hand, God’s puzzle-solver in the other.
Our preacher father didn’t want to expose my brother and me to sin and temptation, even if it meant keeping us away from his family. We knew he had a sister, and that their mother had died when my father was five and Velma was just a baby. Their epileptic daddy moved them from Alabama to Tennessee, where they grew up in the mountains. My father told me stories of moonshine and squirrel traps and the switch his Aunt Eller whipped him with.
After World War II my father went into the seminary, but what my aunt did, where she went, and who she was with were a mystery to my brother and me. I’ve pieced it together over the years: While my father submitted to God, his sister danced with the devil, submitting to nothing but honky-tonks and good times and the semblance of love. She gave one child up for adoption and left another for her aunt and uncle to raise. With a third child, Barry, in tow, she set out to redefine herself, changing her name to Ava, after Ava Gardner, the femme fatale of her favorite film, The Killers. She met my Uncle Spike, who was on leave from the army, and they married and moved to Frankfurt, Germany. The marriage spawned two more babies, Carol and Buzz, and a predilection for beer gardens. The locals called her “Frau Schnapps.” She eventually found herself back in the States, nursing a hangover and three hollering kids in a PX checkout line.
My father revealed all of this to me a little at a time, after the desire to protect my innocence had given way to bitterness and schadenfreude. It’s not that he didn’t love his sister, but he used her as an example of a life lived in sin. He was eager to prove to me that, despite a broken marriage and a ministry that was going nowhere fast, he was still his sister’s spiritual superior.
While we’re in New Jersey, I arrange to meet my cousin Barry at a bar. He’s been in prison twice: once for robbing a low-rung Mafioso, another time for nearly killing a man with a baseball bat for reasons Barry can’t recall; he was stoned at the time. Barry now looks the part of an upstanding citizen — he’s got a well-paying job at a hospital — but there’s still the air of the criminal about him as he talks, looking over his shoulder, cupping his Kools.
“Some gangster wannabe shot his dick off tonight,” he says to lighten the mood. “Had his semi in his pants, and it went off.” Barry stubs out the Kool. “I laughed in his face. Fucking amateurs.”
I ask him about the straight life, how he’s stayed clean.
“I just got tired of prison,” he says. “I mean, my mom, God bless her, she taught me right from wrong. But I just didn’t give a shit. Then I asked Jesus Christ to come into my heart.”
“When was that?”
“Just before parole.”
I signal the bartender, who brings us two more. “My dad says Aunt Velma — I mean, Aunt Ava — doesn’t know whether she’s saved for sure.”
“She’s saved,” Barry says a little too loudly. “She’s saved. I mean, she asked me the same thing, and I said, ‘Mom, have you accepted Christ as your personal Savior?’ And she said yes. So I said, ‘Then you’re going to heaven. Done deal.’ All that other shit don’t matter. She’s forgiven. I’m forgiven. We’re all forgiven.”
I think of the man Barry beat with a Louisville Slugger and try to look convinced.
Barry blows smoke. “All that bad shit?” He makes a sweeping motion with his hand. “Under the rug.”
He sniffs, looks over his shoulder, and starts in on a story about a Mexican bar, a crashed car, and a stolen ID.
Barry wasn’t around that summer of 1977, and neither was Velma’s daughter, my cousin Carol. She lived in California, about an hour from our house, but my father kept her proximity a secret from me until I was nineteen. That’s when Aunt Velma called him to say that Carol was in some kind of trouble. She asked Dad to check on her. I went along for the ride.
“She runs with a pretty rough crowd,” my father warned me on the way. “Hippies.”
He pulled up to a bungalow.
“Wait in the car,” my father said.
I watched a mysterious woman with long brown hair and a peasant dress hug my father at the door and let him in. I’d done this many times before: waited for my father while he visited the sick, the accused, the unsaved. It was part of his job as a preacher. But as I’d grown older and heard some of the stories of sin, my curiosity had grown too. I wondered what life was like on the other side of that closed door. I was already smoking weed and shoplifting Hustler.
A half-hour later, Carol invited me inside. There was no furniture, just throw rugs and pillows and racks of melted candles and the familiar smell of pot. My father looked silly sitting on the floor, as if someone had knocked him down. Behind his head, like a shrine on a shelf, stood a collection of pipes made to look like figurines, their blackened mouths open, mocking. Carol caught me staring at them, and we both smiled.
“I can’t believe we haven’t met until now,” she said.
My father cut in: “We’d better be going.”
Carol was about six years my senior, but the swollen black eye made her look older. She squinted through the yellow-purple bruise.
“She said she doesn’t want to press charges,” my father told me in the car. “I guess all we can do is pray for her.”
But I didn’t pray for her. I went back and got high with her and the guy who’d beaten her. A “misunderstanding,” he and Carol called it. But there was no misunderstanding when Aunt Velma showed up for a surprise visit from New Jersey. The guy quickly disappeared for good.
I was stunned to meet my aunt. She looked and sounded like my father in drag: same long face, same loud Tennessee drawl. But there was a difference in how they perceived me. My father saw a boy on the edge of manhood, in need of advice from his father, and God. My aunt saw a boy being smothered by an overbearing preacher father, a kid who couldn’t breathe. And that’s when she made her proposal: “Why don’t you come stay with me for the summer?”
My father reluctantly said yes, trusting me to go it alone for the first time in my life.
My first night at her place in New Jersey, Aunt Velma lit a joint. “What?” she said when she saw my expression. “An old lady can’t get high now and then?”
I wasn’t comfortable smoking marijuana with my aunt. But I got used to it.
My father and I try another New Jersey steakhouse before we visit my cousin Buzz and his family. The restaurant’s off the main drag and has a medieval motif. It’s so dark inside, my father can’t read the wine list. He squints and asks the waitress if they have his favorite brand, Riunite. I remember their old television-commercial jingle: “Riunite on ice . . . That’s nice!”
“No, sir,” the waitress says.
My father slaps the wine list on the table and makes the face of an incredulous old war vet, another bit of the liberty he fought so hard for chopped away.
“Iced tea, then,” he says dismissively.
He switches gears, directing his disgust at my cousin Carol. “Won’t even visit her own mother on her deathbed,” he says.
There’s been an eleventh-hour family feud over the house. Aunt Velma wants her kids — the three she raised, at least — to sell it and split the money. Carol, who rents a place nearby, wants the whole house to herself because she doesn’t have one.
“Your aunt took out a second mortgage on that house so Carol could start that beauty shop,” my father says, “but Carol never paid her back. And when Velma asked her for a little room to do people’s fingernails — what’s it called?”
“Velma wanted to do manicures. You know, to make a little extra money. And Carol said no; it would ‘smother’ her independence.”
The shop went bust, just like Carol’s personal-care-products pyramid scheme, just like every other “business venture” that involved attending weekend motivational seminars at her mother’s expense.
“What’s Aunt Velma say?”
“Well, it upsets her. And that’s what burns my butt.”
Our salads are wilted, our steaks overdone.
Outside of losing my virginity and shedding my Christian upbringing, I didn’t have many goals at the age of nineteen. I was simply eager to escape my father’s home, and disillusioned about the Christian values he’d tried to instill in me. The divorce had taken care of that. Maybe my aunt saw a little of herself in me: someone seeking to avoid pain and disappointment by seeking out pleasure, like a kid gorging on candy no matter how sick it made him. And that summer my aunt gave me the key to the candy store.
When I met my cousin Buzz, I felt like a boy in a sci-fi flick who travels forward in time and meets himself. Just two years older, Buzz was my doppelgänger: tall and thin, with the same long lashes, hazel eyes, aquiline nose, big lips, and horse teeth. We were both handsome — from a distance — but Buzz had a more outgoing personality. Whereas I was embarrassed by my father’s extroversion, even oppressed by it, Buzz was his mother’s son, loud and laughing and unconcerned with consequences. He would repeat like a mantra the German phrase his mom had taught him as a child: Macht nichts — it doesn’t matter.
So I pretended nothing mattered, too, temporarily trading my Christian guilt for his toll-free philosophy. The legal drinking age in New Jersey then was eighteen. I was happy just to wear the neon halo of alcohol, to vomit in the gutters, to go home dizzy with the spittle of liberation still wet on my chin.
“You boys can’t feel as bad as I do,” my aunt would say the morning after, a wet towel on her head. “My God, I drank too much again.”
Buzz would shrug at me and hand his mother her coffee with a wink.
“No hypocrites in this house,” she’d say and sigh. “Not with this ungodly hangover.”
And another day would start: the freedom of firing up the first bong hit and driving Buzz’s souped-up Camaro to the beach, where the cartoon clouds danced jigs before our blinking, bloodshot eyes.
And that was just the first week.
With his mother’s encouragement, Buzz spent the rest of the summer trying to get me laid. He never teased me about my inexperience, probably because of what my aunt had told him.
“He’s a preacher’s kid,” I’d heard her say to Buzz in the next room. “His daddy taught him premarital sex is a sin, so he’s conflicted. He’s confusing a little fun in the sack with going to hell.”
But really I just didn’t know how to talk to girls. And the more Buzz tried to help me — he called it “deprogramming” — the more he swore. A typical night would start with weed and a pint before we’d hit a dimly lit dive. While Buzz worked the room, I’d pound Rusty Nails to hide my fear. By the time the fear washed away, I’d be blitzed.
“Your cousin don’t look so good,” I’d hear the girl say before I blacked out.
The next day I’d go to work at the hospital hung over, hauling the Hoover from room to room, going through the motions. At lunch I’d go sit by the Navesink River and roll a joint. The boats would knock the dock in a rhythm that sounded sexual, and I’d fantasize about certain nurses before heading back, angry and frustrated. Of course, being stoned in a building full of dead and dying people is not a good idea, especially for a boy still smarting from the burning brimstone of his father’s sermons. It reminded me of our brief time on earth and the eternal punishment if we squander it. Every day I sucked the dust of sickness from air-conditioning vents while patients were out of their rooms. I’d see their robes, their clothes, the items left on the nightstands: a ring, a watch, a set of fake choppers in a half-empty glass of water. And I’d wonder if they were ready to go, if they were saved, if they cared, if this was how their room would look one second after they were gone for good — the scent of flowers in bloom and the trinkets of a life that was no more, the room’s former occupant standing naked at heaven’s pearly gates muttering, “Uh-oh.”
Bent beneath the weight of old Sunday-school lessons, I thought a lot about heaven and hell. Sometimes I couldn’t think of anything else. Even after my Uncle Spike caught me sleeping in the hospital stairwell and fired me, I still felt paralyzed. My aunt called it “weed worry.”
“If it makes you think too much, then leave it be,” she told me, exhaling a hit in the late-night glow of the television and passing the joint back to me.
She said she understood why people overuse drugs, because that’s what she’d done before she’d changed her name.
“Your father turned to God,” she said, “but I turned to the movies, because that’s where I could escape. And Ava Gardner was everything I wanted to be: She was fresh. She was free. She was beautiful. And the next man who asked me my name, I told him it was Ava. And God damn it if I didn’t feel different. Alive.” She wiped an ash off her blue nightie and touched the red rollers in her hair. “So I guess you could say I saved myself,” she said. “I just had to imagine I was someone else and believe it.”
At the end of the summer, Buzz’s going-away gift to me was a ticket to a Peter Frampton concert at Madison Square Garden: top tier, top row, the star just a dot in a constellation of burning Bic lighters.
Cruising Times Square in his Camaro after the show, Buzz stopped at a corner and rolled down the window. Half-naked women came from all around, surrounding the car, tapping, clicking, kissing, pressing their breasts against the glass.
“My cousin needs some help,” Buzz said.
One woman reached for my crotch. “He sure do,” she said. “Ain’t nothing there.”
“Where that dick, baby?” another said. “I’ll help you find it.”
But the turtle had withdrawn its head. I was scared, overwhelmed by this surprise attack of she-devils. I was shriveled by the feeling that God was watching, and by the shame of being shriveled.
“Are you going to cry?” Buzz asked and rolled his window up. “Jesus.”
“Let’s just go, man,” I pleaded.
The Camaro rolled on, the women receded, and we lit a last joint in the tunnel.
Now Buzz lives an hour’s drive down the turnpike. “Big house. Big everything,” my father says at the wheel.
The last time I talked to Buzz, fifteen years ago, he was driving a garbage truck and selling out-of-state lottery tickets on the side. His main job, though, was trying to get his wife, Stella, pregnant. He was failing. So they adopted a pair of adolescent girls, adding a room onto their small house.
A couple of years later I saw them on a daytime talk show about “the miracle of fertility drugs.” Stella had given birth to triplets, all girls. The family of four was now a party of seven. Buzz auditioned the infants for television commercials while Stella worked on Wall Street. After the Twin Towers came down, Stella came home for good. By then their adopted girls were grown and living on their own: one pregnant, one addicted to crack.
“They ever hear from those girls?” I ask my father.
“They don’t talk about them much anymore,” he says. “Help me find the exit.”
It’s almost dark when we roll up to the house, a McMansion on a street of McMansions. The triplets are playing basketball in the driveway, doing a layup drill. They’re all tall and coordinated. Buzz isn’t home, but Stella invites us in. The girls don’t stop practicing to speak to us.
“That’s three college scholarships in progress,” Stella says, closing the door.
“How old are they now?” I ask.
We’re just settling in when the front door flies open, and Buzz enters surrounded by screaming girls. “Daddy!” is all I can make out. The rest is a gleeful gibberish and squeals and a father’s laugh.
“I can’t hear the television!” my father yells.
Buzz still looks like the kid who tried to get me laid, only with a little gray and a paunch, as if he were a young actor made up to look middle-aged.
“Twenty free throws each and then dinner,” he tells the team.
“But it’s dark!” one of them says.
“All right, ten.”
The girls let go of his limbs, and he motions me to the backyard, where there’s a big pool with a pool house.
“You saw Ma already?” he asks me from a changing room.
I tell him we’ll see her again tomorrow before I go home. He comes out with a burning joint in his lips.
“Still get high?” he says.
I don’t, but I take a hit anyway.
We sit in deck chairs and stare at the stars over south Jersey.
“Sometimes I sit out here and think, Man, where does all the time go?” he says.
I think he’s going to talk about his mom, about life, about the choices we make. But instead he talks about bowhunting: hours spent waiting in a tree stand, the money he saves eating deer meat.
“St. Mary’s ain’t cheap,” he says, referring to the girls’ private school.
“I didn’t know you were Catholic.”
“I’m not. Stella is. Macht nichts.”
I still envy his apathy.
“I’m sorry about your mom,” I offer.
“What are you going to do?” he asks rhetorically. “She’s lived a good life. Made some mistakes. But we all do. I’m going to miss her.”
When we go in, the dinner table’s set. My father and Buzz agree on their tough stance against illegal immigration. “But I’ll have to find a whole new landscaping crew if it goes into law,” Buzz says, and we all laugh. The girls slurp their spaghetti. Stella sips her wine. My father rants. Buzz belches. No one mentions Aunt Velma. No one talks about eternity. No one mentions the price we pay for the life we live. It’s not in the script, any more than the adopted girls are.
“Who wants dessert?” Stella asks, scooping out seven strawberry dollops of denial.
My father sets his breakfast tray down next to his Bible in a corner booth at McDonald’s.
“Why did you bring your Bible?” I ask.
“I want to go over some Scriptures before we say goodbye to Velma.” He licks a thumb and flips through his old King James.
“Do you think she’s got a lot of regrets?” I ask.
“Shoot, Son, we’ve all got regrets,” he says. “It’s whether you square it with God before it’s too late that counts.”
I choke down some sausage.
“Now, with what she did with her kids, I think that might be her biggest burden right now.”
“You mean the ones she gave up?”
“Son, I don’t understand how anyone could give up their own children. But she did what she had to do at the time, and she’s paid a price.”
“What happens now?” I ask my father.
He kills his carton of milk. “What happens now is I make sure Velma’s right with God.”
“Because she thinks God’s punishing her?”
“Because she’s my only sister, Son.” My father’s eyes water as he turns the pages. “First John 5:13,” he says without reading. “ ‘That ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe in the name of the Son of God.’ ”
“But not without faith,” he says. “Hebrews 11:1. ‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ In other words: He said it, I believe it, and that settles it. Heaven boils down to faith.”
“It’s got to be hard to have faith when you’re dying.”
“No, Son,” my father says, sounding less like an old preacher and more like a father. “Not if we confess our sins. It doesn’t matter when.”
“ ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.’ ”
“That’s right, Son,” my father says, looking surprised. “First John 1:9. You remember.”
I do. I don’t know how. “But Aunt Velma’s done that, hasn’t she?”
“Well, she’s said the words. But she’s got to believe it. Big difference.” He wipes his hands.
I was twelve when I “said the words.” But I was never certain. No matter how much I prayed, no matter how many times I confessed, I was never sure God was listening. So I stopped.
I didn’t lose my virginity in the summer of 1977, but I lost God. Or I thought I did. I tried to believe in what my aunt said: that we can save ourselves. She disguised herself as Ava and forgot about heaven and hell. I had my own disguise: the drug-addicted drunk. It passed the time, almost thirty years of it, but it never felt right. There was always the fumbling in the night, and the mirror in the morning. So I got married, cleaned up, had kids. But nothing changed, not inside. I know now my aunt was wrong. We cannot save ourselves, no matter how many disguises we come up with. My father wrapped the roots of that truth around my heart, and all the posing and poison couldn’t kill it. You can’t scam God: Not in divorce court. Not in a fast-food joint. Not on your deathbed.
“God does not hear the prayer of the sinner unless it’s a prayer for forgiveness,” my father whispers.
“He forgives, Son. Period. It’s not a feeling. It’s faith.”
“Happy birthday to you. . . .” My father and I serenade Aunt Velma over her cake. She won’t be eighty-two until next week, but we’ll be gone by then, and my father thinks Velma will be too. He wanted to light a single candle, but Uncle Spike pointed to the oxygen tank in the corner and said, “You’ll blow us all up, for Christ’s sake.”
We finish the song, and my father hands Velma a card. There’s a hundred-dollar bill in the Hallmark, a C-note for the cab ride to heaven. The wind rattles the windows as if it wanted to come in. The room smells of lilac and Lysol. My father leaves to let me say goodbye. I’m out of my element, trying to soothe the fears of someone who’s about to die, but I try, calling on my mother’s death again.
“There’s an image my mother liked a lot,” I say, not meeting Velma’s eyes, talking to her hand in mine, “the image of someone in a boat. Her friends and family are on the shore waving goodbye. But on the other shore, the relatives who’ve died before her are saying, ‘Welcome home.’ ”
“You really think so?” Aunt Velma sounds unconvinced. “And your mother might be there?”
“I hope so.”
“I guess we’ll see, then.” She looks more resigned, less rouged than she did during our last conversation.
“Any dreams?” I ask.
She looks at me as if I were the one on morphine. “That yellow housecoat over there looks a little funny sometimes.”
I look to where she’s pointing, but there’s no yellow housecoat.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says, “but who are you?”
“I’m your nephew. Your brother’s son.”
She stares until my face registers; then she squeezes my hand. “I knew that.” She puts the oxygen mask to her mouth and takes a couple of hits. “I know a woman whose daddy knew to the very second when he was going to die.” Aunt Velma launches into a meandering story about a man who told everyone when he was going to die, got everything ready, fed the dog, paid the bills, set out his clothes, and died on the spot.
“I wish I could do that,” she says, out of breath again.
“You’ll know when to let go,” I say.
“I’m scared,” she whispers.
I don’t know what to say. I’m scared, too. The movie-star masquerade is finally over.
My father steps into the doorway. “Son?”
I kiss my aunt’s forehead, taste powder and skin. Behind my closed eyes I think about Velma’s words: I’m scared. Not a confession, but a warning of what lies ahead for me on my own deathbed if I don’t listen to what my father says and get right with God.
“I love you,” I say with my nose in her brittle hair.
“I’ll see you soon,” she says and tries to smile.
And as I watch my father open his Bible, I sense the lightness of time, the vapor of it, the speed of our being, and how soon it will be when Velma and I do see each other again.