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A Place Among Strangers
by Mary Ann McGuigan

I get to my feet, as do the trickle of mourners in the pews, the few friends and relatives not part of the immediate family—my former in-laws—who are standing by the church entrance with the casket. Nana, as my two sons still call her, stands surrounded by her children and their spouses, silhouetted in the bright sunlight of the church entrance, like cast members in a spotlight, waiting to be assigned their places. She's older, smaller than I remember her, fragile. The shoulder pads in her suit add nothing to her stature; they seem like weights she must bear. She looks as if she's surprised to be here, troubled but still hopeful that there may have been a misunderstanding. She must be 80 now. She was in her mid-fifties when we got married. I've seen her only occasionally since the divorce. Each time, her appearance takes me off guard, contradicts the frozen image I keep of her, looking as she did during those last few years, when I had convinced myself that my husband and I would make it, when the idea of breaking up was so big, so frightening, that I had no place for it.
    She has lost her only brother, her confidante. I don't belong here, but I want to witness this for her, acknowledge the scope of it. I've had such losses, the kind that come like a slap, remind you that you are not special in this world, you will be hurt just as badly as anyone else. She has too. She's lost an infant child, a sister not yet 50.
    My son Douglas stands beside me, my pass to get in, and I'm glad I'm not here alone. I'd feel like even more of an intruder, more starkly out of place. She follows with the others behind the pallbearers and I nod in acknowledgement when she sees me. I expect no more than a nod in return. Instead, she begins to cry and comes toward me, arms out to welcome me. Our embrace is awkward, as if our arms are not equipped to express such complicated feelings. "I'm so glad to see you," she tells me. And I see that it's true. The others, her children and their spouses, hug me warmly in turn, as if my coming here today were a comfort, a necessary thing.
    I am glad to see them too. But it's a melancholy gladness, a moment out of time, as if their presence in my life, our connection, had been put on fast forward, and here we are, looking just as familiar to each other as we would if we had been together all that time. We are like old postcards of a place we should have known we'd never forget.
    Her son does not greet me, but it may be because I make no eye contact, no sign that would invite him to approach. I dare not look at him yet. The wound is old now and barely felt, but it is deep and serious and must be treated with respect. More than once it has opened up when I thought it was safely closed. And I am not foolish enough to believe I can see him here with his wife on his arm and his family in their grief without wandering again into that dark briar of questions that have no answers.
    I am grateful for the Mass, for the programmed responses and the memorized motions that demand no true presence. Nana breaks down more than once, but not completely. She is attended by her daughters, who flank her like valqueries, warning death to keep its distance. Their uncle was a difficult man, someone they tolerated for their mother's sake. His death was yet another imposition. The pastor is speedy and efficient, as if sensing the sisters' impatience to be done with these ministrations or, more likely, knowing that with a turnout so paltry, the departed is no one he need linger over.
    Sunshine worthy of a bride's exit lights the church steps as we leave, and my son and I make our way through the self-conscious little crowd already separating into camps. Nana is more relaxed out here, more willing to show how happy she is to see me. "How is June?" she wants to know. She's referring to my sister, whose husband died of cancer just weeks ago. "She's doing ok," I tell her. And she nods sadly, knowing that can't be the truth.
    Dana, her youngest grandchild, tugs at my sleeve. She is only seven, born years after the separation, but she thinks she knows me, the way kids do when they're introduced to grownups they assume have been on hand all along with no other purpose but to witness their lives. "I remember you," she declares, claiming a place between me and her grandmother, clearly unwilling to be left out of the reunion. "You have a dog."
    "Yes," I tell her, deciding against my usual explanation that it is my older son Matt's dog, acquired, finally, because his father had no say in the decision. This dog would shed hair and chew slippers outside his father's purview; he would be spared the dire consequences triggered by things out of place in his home. The boys tell me that their father's new wife is even more fanatical about neatness than he is and twice as neurotic. This seems an unlikely feat, although her use of paper plates on Thanksgiving indicates tidiness of impressive caliber.
    I chance a look at the compatible couple. She's wearing a pleated skirt, pressed so crisply it could still be returned to the rack with no one the wiser. Despite two decades that set them apart, they look alike enough to be cut from an ad. She is almost as tall as he and they gaze over the heads below them, seeming annoyed at something out of alignment in the distance. I sense some kind of rhythm that connects them, although they're perfectly still, truly statuesque, so I don't know where I'm getting this idea, until I see that the veins at their temples, thick under tanned skin, are pulsing as one.
    He notes my gaze, nods in recognition, and I nod back, although I have no memory of what I'm confirming, no idea anymore how I could have been with this man. The nod comes as his wife is busy talking in his ear. I can't tell if the words are tender or a tirade. She is otherwise totally still. Maybe his nod was meant for her, a gesture of agreement or ascent. This is a man, after all, who tried to annul a 16-year marriage after the divorce was final so that his bride's used-goods groom could redeem himself. He is nothing if not accommodating.
    He takes a step forward. She follows. "Mary Ann," he says. "You've met Dawn."
    "Of course," I say and extend my hand. This is not true, in fact. I've seen her at a distance. At the senior play. At Doug's graduation. But never like this, close enough to see the clumps in her mascara. Her hand in mine is dry, slender, limp, and slinks away quickly to tuck itself under his arm. She seems more centered now, but I am left off balance, confused, remembering how much he disliked my taking his arm, how he'd stiffen and find something to point to or a reason to tend to one of the boys.
    It's an odd feeling to see him with this person. But the discomfort is not from jealousy or hurt—life has finally shown me what it's like to be cherished. It's something else, something that makes you want to close ranks, lower your voice. It's the discomfort of having a stranger in your midst.
    Dana, impatient, wants me back in the conversation. "What's the dog's name?" she says.
    "His name is Turner."
    "We don't have a dog. We have a cat," she says, identifying herself according to what, for her, must surely be the only way that people need ever be divided. But from the corner of my eye I see Dawn let go of her husband's arm. He has decided, despite the brisk air, that he must remove his jacket. When he finishes, he folds it into his arms crossed in front of his chest, and Dawn returns her hand to the pocket of her coat.



About the author:
Mary Ann McGuigan is the author of three novels for young adults—Cloud Dancer (Scribner's Sons); Where You Belong (Atheneum), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and Morning in a Different Place (Front Street Press, 2009). Her short fiction and essays for adults have appeared in literary magazines and newspapers, including Grist, The Sun, US 1, New York Times, and New York Sunday Newsday. By day, Mary Ann is publisher for Bloomberg Press in New York.



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