Short Memoir by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz
When it was time to burn my mother she wept two red tears. I drove her to the crematory and watched my place of origin turn to white ash and silver mica.
Adderley was my first death—my best-friend’s little sister, I was only seven and Addie was only one: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: Suddenly. Infinitely. Disappearing. Then came my grandparents, one after another, they were gone by the time I was fourteen. The same year my paternal grandmother died, so did another baby that I knew—she too suddenly disappeared forever; she was buried in a tiny pink casket and her mother, Mindy, cried during the entire service. Yet Mindy survived, somehow, and had another daughter—but life is never fair, and Mindy was killed in a car accident around the time I moved back to Colorado.
Little Bob had a hernia and it frightened me the one and only time we had sex. That night, I slept in his bed, and while I slept, he drew my portrait. After he showed it to me, he buried it in the backyard and refused to tell me where it was, although he did give it to me later once we knew I’d never love him like he loved me. Rendered in pencil on watercolor paper, this sketch remains taped to the inside cover of my journal, dated: 1995. Little Bob was not an artist, and yet, he captured me. And he is the only person I have ever kissed at the very top of a Ferris wheel. A decade later, Little Bob died from a hotshot of heroin, eleven days before I was married. Friends came from his funeral in Minneapolis to my wedding in Colorado, and Little Bob hitched a ride—in all the pictures taken, I am a bride surrounded by a swirl of light. His ghost still visits me from time to time, usually when I’m alone and driving a back road late at night.
After J.P. died from pancreatitis, I almost hit a coyote driving home on Valmont—it was the middle of the day. Three mornings later, I stepped into my yard and saw a coyote standing in the field. It was dawn and the pasture still a harvest gold beneath the veil of a cold white frost. The coyote stood and stared at me before he turned to walk away. His back leg was broken and he limped as he headed east to be reborn.
Everyone thought my mother was going to die on my thirty-fifth birthday. Pancreatic cancer spreads to the brain but the doctors forgot to tell us this. After a period of extreme psychosis, she fell still and silent and she hadn’t stirred in days. Because she was starting to swell, I was forced to remove her wedding band. I was prepared. It seemed fitting that she would die on my birthday, but she didn’t—Jamie died instead. Jamie was J.P.’s little brother and the last time I’d seen him was at my wedding; J.P. died on Jamie’s birthday just the year before. When they were kids, they were in the skate punk band called, Old Skull—airtime on MTV, talk show interviews, media buzz. Jamie hung himself from a tree in Lynchburg, Virginia and April had to cut him down.
April lost her leg hopping a train out of Dinky Town when she was nineteen. I used to massage her phantom leg, but only when we were stoned. April was in love with Cabbie back when we were young. One day, Cabbie bought a pair of Gingher sewing shears; expensive stainless steel, the shine was dangerous when he cut off his ear—he need to make room for the wingspan of a hawk tattooed across his face. Cabbie stored his ear in my freezer for a year; he wanted to get it bronzed like people do with baby shoes, but I think Little Bob sewed it to a dead chicken-rat instead.
Later, April and I ended up living in King Salmon, California. The “beach house” had been built on a fault line less than half a mile away from a nuclear power plant. This house is where Cabbie carved out his tongue because he didn’t want to tell lies anymore. In my bedroom, I had a futon on the floor, and not much else, and this is where he sat as he cut it out. I was at the bar but he bled all over my travelling doll, Anangka. Cabbie bled all over the house and up and down the front walk. When I came home, the house was like the aftermath of a massacre. When I went to see him in the hospital, he could still talk. Eating ice cream, Cabbie had a lisp when he explained: “To stop talking, the vocal chords must be removed.” When I was fifteen, there was a bearded homeless man in Boulder who wandered the streets at night in a long gray trench coat. He was towering tall and I swear he had a music box inside his chest by the way he sometimes would break into song. His name was Tom and I’m sure he’s dead by now.
April has a tattoo on her face like a game of connect-the-dots; a constellation of stars, sporadic lines. I wish this was the map to find Cabbie who disappeared in 1998 the year I almost died. $15,000 continues to sit in his bank account unaccounted for and April refuses to make the withdrawal. Cabbie made this money on the fishing boats in Alaska; he wanted to buy utopia. April thinks he went into the woods to castrate himself. He was only trying to be whole again. Maybe Cabbie bled out. After all, he was the closest thing we had to Christ.
There were others too: Marcus on his motorcycle, fragments of bone left on the asphalt like stars. Jeremy, whose middle name was Rainbow, died shooting up in the Denver bus depot bathroom. Marcel had an asthma attack doing speed and Micah, waltzing with a train. These four were all fathers when they died, their children young—J.P. was a dad too, and his son looks just like him.
Sobriety and Patch chose the shotgun tunnel into the afterlife, and Liz owed me $30.00 when she died from dope. Couch took angel dust and jumped off the roof of 5005, and it was the worst kind of luck when he didn’t die. Casey died from AIDS-related complications and Uri died like Marcel and Oakle, my stepdaughter’s uncle, left this world one November night via Oxycontin, also known as Hillbilly Heroin.
There was Kendra who I knew growing up; a few years older than me, she was her parent’s youngest, and our families were friends. Little Bob might have been the first person to ever serve me tuna mac, but Kendra was the first to ever make me mac and cheese from a box. Kendra was living in Canada in 1994 when she purchased a one-way plane ticket back to Colorado without telling anyone. She just left a rent check for her roommate, and when she landed in Denver, she didn’t go home. Every time I drive into the city, I see the tall round hotel where she went instead, and I have to wonder which window was the window from which she jumped. Kendra, who was so determined not to let her suicide be an inconvenience to anyone, did not leave a note and while others long for an explanation, I always thought her actions said enough.
Thorn was only three when his parents had to pull the plug. When Donovan came home from the hospital, I made salmon, and after we had eaten, I watched him carve a turtle urn for his son while Fish walked up and down the Mississippi, crying. And now Donovan’s the one in the hospital—intensive care—over a decade later, some wounds never heal. Caitlyn died from cancer with Shelley by her side and Meghan, who I used to babysit, died in her sleep—something to do with the spina bifida; her split spine. Jenny, who was always so much fun, used to say she was a member of the Die Young Club on account of having Hep C, yet she was nearly forty when she died, and her death was due to heroin. She’d been clean for years, Eddie wrote to me, instant-message, Facebook. But what kills me, he said, Is that her daughter was the one who found her. Jenny’s daughter was thirteen, same age as mine, same age as Little Bob’s little girl.
All I have of Bob is the drawing he drew of me and a dirty scrap of his Chicken Shack T-shirt. Anangka sits in the cup holder of my car to keep me safe; made from a sock she still wears Cabbie’s DNA. I have a letter Micah wrote to me, postmark Nova Scotia. Blue ballpoint pen, careful capital letters, he wrote: The other day I went to Eagle’s Cave where it’s all white sandstone inside and I drew some pictures to remind myself what I am. Eddie and Leona named their son after him. Micah like the mica in my mother’s ashes, her mountain mermaid scales. From Marcel, I have a letter he wrote to me from jail. I need to get out of here, he said, and on the envelope seal, he drew a grinning skull. Fish has Marcus’s old backgammon board and scrawled across the case, J.P. wrote: Go play your little games.
Cremated on a bed of quartz, wearing a pair of rock star leather pants, Jamie’s ashes came out green and course like crumbled jade whereas J.P. was naked when he turned into something soft. Something pure and terrible, his remains are like the China White we once injected along the banks of the River Styx. Rationed out to friends and family, I have a little of each brother. Side by side, they sit on my dresser and I can see them from my wrought iron bed. They sit on a black pool of Scrying glass with my mother’s death mask—the one I made with my daughter using plaster, gauze, and water. There they all watch over me, and speak to me through dreams, a list that never ends.
Sarah Elizabeth Schnoz lives on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado in an old farmhouse surrounded by open sky, cattle, century-old cottonwoods and owls. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Third Coast, The Los Angeles Review, Bombay Gin, Hunger Mountain, Alligator Juniper, and many others. In 2012, she won the Fall Orlando Prize in Short Fiction. She holds an MFA in Writing & Poetics, and her first novel, Fig, was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster.
Image courtesy of Len de la Cruz, via unsplash.com
Also published on Medium.