Chelsea Comeau is the winner of the Arts Council of New Westminster’s Lit Fest New West Fiction Contest, sponsored by Dale Darychuk and us! Chelsea’s piece was selected from a number of entries, by a panel of judges, and first appeared on our April 2017 print edition. She is the artist in residence at Anvil Centre in April 2017.
Lilli is unsure, at first, if the voices in the other room are coming from her television. The conversation she hears is hushed, and could easily be an intimate moment shared between two characters whose lives have been written for them weeks in advance. Perhaps they discuss conspiracy. Perhaps they are in love.
But then one of her daughters mentions the funeral home, which is named for a poisonous flower that grows in humid places like Los Angeles, and nowhere near New Westminster. Lilli realizes her children have finally begun to talk.
She takes her hearing aids from the glass dish on the nightstand and hooks them around the backs of her ears. Everything comes, at once, to life: the sound of traffic below the window, spoons in the living room colliding softly with the sides of tea cups.
“Dad wanted to be cremated,” Janice tells the others. “He said so after they diagnosed him.”
Lilli couldn’t remember ever hearing that, but her other two children concede easily because neither one of them wants to ignite an argument. Not when everything is so fragile. She imagines the precise way in which Janice is sitting, one leg crossed over the other at the knees, the tight line of her mouth commanding her younger siblings’ attention the way it always had.
“I think we should show Mum the brochures tomorrow. The home on Eighth beside the high school is taking new residents.”
Trina’s voice, which has always been the softest, is barely audible above the sound of a pickup truck driving by.
“It’s expensive, don’t you think?”
“She’s ninety-four. Does it matter? She won’t be there long.”
There’s an intermission of quiet while Trina pours herself another cup from the teapot that Lilli and Gerald received sixty-eight years ago as a wedding gift. The design painted onto it is royal blue, the windmill so perfect amongst shrubs and brush-swept grass that if you sat and stared long enough, it seemed as though the thatched blades actually moved.
Daryl, however, is not lost in the teapot’s realism. He is the first to breach the silence with a calmness rehearsed for three hours on the plane.
“I think we should give her a few days before we start bombarding her. She’s in spectacular physical shape. She could live another ten years, for all we know.”
“Husbands and wives who’ve been together as long as Mum and Dad typically die within short periods of one another.”
Janice is indignant, as though this is a scientific inevitability, and Lilli’s days are most certainly numbered.
“That’s really messed up, Jan.”
Trina bristles in her seat, but offers nothing to the conversation. Lilli remembers bringing Trina home from the hospital in the middle of August, how bored the other two seemed with the idea of diapers and endless howling. Trina spent much of her early years engaged in the solitude of an only child, and very little had changed over time.
Daryl drains the rest of his tea in one bulging gulp. Lilli hears the hardwood groan as he crosses the living room into the kitchen. He stands next to the sink, and considers the peppermint grains left behind at the bottom of his cup, adrift on the little puddle that lingers at the bottom of any drink, no matter how deep the final swig. He wonders what a fortune teller would have to say about the arc of them, if the shape might have something to do with one or more of his chakras.
He is quickly forgetting the tranquility he practised so carefully before coming home, and the crowdedness of everything begins to creep up on him. Every corner of Lilli’s apartment is full, the suite straining at its seams with useless souvenirs. There are stained-glass hummingbirds suction-cupped to the kitchen window, and ceramic archangels in a row on the sill: Michael brandishing his sword, Gabriel bearing a slender trumpet.
“Packing this place up is going to be a nightmare,” he remarks, to no one in particular.
Janice brings the serving tray and empty tea pot to the sink. She turns the metal stopper at the mouth of the drain and fills the sink with hot water. The dish soap is a purple syrup that smells of synthetic lavender. “We’ll never find a place with room enough for everything. It won’t be packing so much as throwing things away, or selling whatever’s worth money.”
Daryl unclasps his watch and sets it on the counter before plunging his hands into the water. “Dad’s lucky,” he says. “You hear all those stories. People getting lost, freezing to death. At least he never wandered off.”
The kids didn’t know, of course, about the night Lilli found Gerald a block away from the apartment, without his shoes. He’d tried to open a locked car that wasn’t his, and sat on the curb with his hands over his ears to muffle the alarm.
“I hope I go in my sleep, too.”
“Yeah, but then someone’s going to wake up next to your corpse,” Janice reasons. She opens the cupboard beside the stove, finds a clean dish towel, and begins drying the cups. This is all Lilli has ever wanted for her children, domestic intimacies peppered with family banter. “How long do you think Mum was sleeping next to a dead body?”
“Jesus Christ, Jan, shut up!”
“I’m just being realistic.”
Janice puts the tea cups in the cupboard above the sink. She keeps the pot out a moment longer and turns it over in her hands, considering its value, allowing her imagination its brief wildness. Suppose it was worth something, after all…
“I’m going back to my hotel,” Daryl announces, then. He has spent every measure of tolerance within him. He dries his hands on the legs of his sweatpants, leaving two dark smears behind. “I need to get some sleep.”
Lilli listens to their vague good-byes, the obligatory ceremony between siblings obligatory, like communion at the end of mass.
Daryl phones for a taxi and leaves to wait for it outside on Carnarvon Street. Lilli smells the cigarette he lights as soon as he exits the building, a thin curl of smoke creeping in through the crack in the window. It’s early winter, but she can’t abide how closed the room seems tonight without fresh air.
“I love how he shows up in a crisis and acts like he’s son of the year,” Janice snorts, joining Trina again in the living room. “You and I are the ones who came in every week to check on Dad. We drove him and Mum to all the appointments.”
“And now we’ll probably be the ones to find Mum a new home.”
Lilli unhooks her hearing aids again. They shriek until she pops the batteries out their bottoms, and puts them back in the dish on the nightstand. Without their echo, the room becomes a soft womb of quiet.
She thinks the bed has grown larger, somehow. The gully of distance between her side and Gerald’s, which had seemed narrow before, now expanded into something so huge, it is almost frightening. She turns onto her side and, draws the duvet tightly over her shoulder.
The morning Lilli decided something was very wrong with Gerald, she’d found his car keys in the vegetable crisper, and phoned their doctor to make an appointment. She knew the diagnosis before it was given to them from across the small white table, and there was some comfort in that. She would not be steamrolled by astonishment. The news would not break her.
But it seemed as though, in the days after, the word itself was enough permission for Gerald to relent to the disease completely. He began to depend on Lilli for everything, and often left their room in the middle of the night to rearrange things throughout the apartment. She brought him into the bathroom with her while she showered, sat him on the closed toilet seat and hoped the locked door was enough to slow him down before she noticed he was trying to leave. Sometimes she wept quietly behind the curtain while she washed herself, thin veins of soap unraveling between her breasts.
How awful it was, everyone said, to forget your children, your wife, to forget how to eat and tie your own shoes. Friends visited on weekends, their eyes brimming with pity and that little gleam of relief to know that they could soon go home and live different, undamaged lives.
But none of them considered how awful it was to be the one to remember. How could Lilli explain to them the thin sound of her husband’s voice, its pleading in those luminous moments to let him die, his quick forgetting of that, too. The wildness in his face before the white pillow between Lilli’s hands closed over him. His flailing, and the long night that followed. Its silence.