Merri fought her hangover with a second cup of undiluted coffee. She was trying very hard to appear bright eyed and bushy tailed, as her mother would say, because Edna didn’t believe in drinking. And Merri didn’t want to jeopardize their fragile partnership. However, by the afternoon, Merri knew she would be curled in a fetal position on the sofa, watching some offensive talk show because she didn’t have the strength to change the channel.
She and Edna sat across from each other at her Gram’s round oak table by the window overlooking the silver gas tank on the side of the yard. Edna clutched her fat, reddened hands together. The bright sun glinted on her cross and angel pen. Merri had retrieved a notebook and a sharpened #2 pencil and set them before her–a fresh page, all the spirals unbent and evenly spaced, the ledger lines level. She didn’t write any words, but the geometry of straight lines and squares helped focus her brain.
“So, what happened the day Grandmother died?”she asked, sounding much like her former department head at the beginning of the weekly staff meetings.
Edna took a deep breath through her nose and leaned her head back; her eyes went vacant as she looked inward. “I knowed there was going to be a lightning storm in afternoon cause it was so hot. I thought about calling Viola, and I was ‘bout to . . .” Edna squeezed her hands tighter, “but Ann called and asked if I could come early to the beauty parlor, because Ellen got her nephew’s pink eye and had to cancel. I knew something was wrong, but I feel that way a lot, and sometimes it means something, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s like I can feel something is wrong with someone, even if I don’t knowed them or where they are. That little Mexican girl was washing my hair when I my heart started hurting, I thought I was having a heart attack, but then I realized it was Viola.”
“Gram had a heart attack? I thought—“
“No, my heart hurts when people die. My heart felt like someone hammered it with nails a half hour before the plant called ‘bout Ray.” Ray was Merri’s uncle. He’d died in a chemical explosion at the Caterpillar plant two decades previous.
“So what did you do?”
“Well, I just left with my hair wet and drove as fast as I could. I knowed I wouldn’t get a ticket, ‘cause of Dewayne, but I don’t approve of speeding. I drove up. Viola’s car was by the steps, like she kept it since her hip surgery. But I didn’t see your mama’s car, the hospice worker’s neither. I knocked, but nobody came. I knowed it then for sure. I let myself in, and I could smell it. Have you ever smelled death? People death?“
“No.” Merri confessed. She had written about it several times, done online research about body farms, but had never actually experienced the acrid scent.
“Well, it smelt like when Momma died. Daddy was out of town, and it was just us kids; we didn’t have no car.” Edna paused for a moment, as if she had gotten confused amongst death and time. “Then I saw her, not really saw her, you understand. I knowed she was in the bedroom. So I went in there. She was lying down on top of the covers, in a nightgown, like she was just taking a nap.”
“And this was around what time?”
“They said around 2:30 on the report.”
· Died in bed – curled on side · Alone – no hospice??? CHECK · 2:30pm according to report.
“Did you notice anything unusual? Anything that made you think it was a m—, wasn’t natural?”
“No, and that made me real mad with Viola.”
“It was just like her. She never told you when something was really wrong until later. It’s like she didn’t want to upset people, you know? So she let us bury her and everything, then she tells me.”
“Tells you what?”
“That someone done killed her. If she had told me when I found her, I would have looked around. See, she’s mad now. Can you feel it? ”
Merri’s fingers tightened around the pencil. “No.”
“She’s over there by the telephone. Do you see the light?”
Merri stared. Just an old telephone with the long coil hanging from the wall. A bulletin board with numbers written on a torn out page of an address book. Some dust floating in the air, and the reflection from the mirror in the darkened dining room just beyond. No light.
Merri put down her pencil, feeling very much un-pagan. She was supposed to be comfortable with all this — the mess of death and cycles and rebirth — but in truth, she just felt repulsed. “Well, does she know who killed her?“ She heard the cynical tones of her professor voice and made a mental note to ease up with the crisp enunciation, but Edna didn’t catch the shift. She was caught in the memory.
“She don’t know.” A tear slid down Edna’s left cheek. Her irises were huge, like green full moons. “It’s very sad to be left behind, you know. “