The woman whose name Viola has already forgotten slides a fat three-ring binder across the table and asks if Vi would like an adornment. The room is dressed in landscape paintings and lightly patterned carpeting, aspiring to the nowhereness of a hotel room or an office park.
“An adornment,” Vi repeats back to the woman and the word is so funny like everything is so funny. The landscape painting behind the woman is inartful mountains. It reminds Vi of the man on PBS who had once felt like a secret but turned out to be a meme. Now he was dead. Everyone was dead, a remarkable fact for the way everyone else was not and going and going and going through their days, wildly outnumbered.
The three-ring binder has page after page of simple black and white drawings–terrible clip art–separated by theme. Sports, it says the top of a page: a black and white figure of a woman on water skis, man in a baseball uniform, man with a fishing rod. There is a religion theme (so many crosses, a few with clip art Jesus).
Loved ones can select a picture to be etched on the gravestone, the woman beneath the terrible landscape says. Vi, it appears from the woman’s face, is to respond to this statement.
There is a family theme (crib, upright man with arm around upright woman, child, in profile, running). There is a food theme (pie, candy cane, sandwich). It’s so stupid, she can’t stop turning the pages. Each page is sheathed in a plastic sleeve, and the fact that it was someone’s job to put these pieces of paper one by one into the plastic sleeves is almost too much. The plastic sticks lightly together and has to be peeled apart. It’s a childhood sound, a low, satisfying chhhhh, though she couldn’t say from where in childhood, all of childhood a feeling and a lump. All of childhood a tumor.
There is an art theme (paint palette, frame on easel, bust of nonspecific head). An outdoors theme (fir tree, pup tent, hawk) and Vi is starting to reverse engineer, conjuring the person whose life is conveyed by an old-timey radio (entertainment theme) or fireplace (home theme), feeling sorry for that person and superior, so superior, but also envious, not of the ridiculously adorned but of the ridiculous adorner, a loved one who sat exactly where Vi is sitting, eye level to the same bad landscape painting, turning the same plastic pages, but with a person inside of them who they can match up to a motorcycle (vehicles theme) or laptop (work theme) or cat on rug (pet theme) and have it mean something.
“No,” she finally says to the woman. She is sad to be at the last page, a final, desperate yawp, probably for people exactly like her, who’d found nothing but grist and irony. Hobbies it says at the top: muscle car, toolbox, kite, jigsaw puzzle, hiking poles, binoculars, notepad, bowling ball, violin, tri-fold map. “But I’ll take the harpsicord and the gerbil for mine.”
The woman beneath the bad landscape talks of family plots and discount pricing and the best planning is advance planning. There is no way to explain the joke, and Vi runs one finger over the plastic, thinking for a senseless second that her mother will crystallize inside her, intact and whole, instead of as a droop of disappointment at the corner of her lip; I’m good, no I’m good from the doorway of a room; three stubborn chin whiskers.
The woman beneath the bad landscape stops talking, and suddenly. Having figured out the joke, she is smiling, though her smile is not one that communicates that is funny. Her eyes are large, and green for the first time. She reaches for her book and pulls it back across the table so quickly, it skids a little. She closes the back flap with a dull fut, and flips it over, front side up, ready for the next.
Vi will, she tells herself, weave her way through the rows of headstones outside this building and see who got what adornment, though she won’t. She’ll get in her rental car and figure out room service lunch and coordinate her brother’s airport pickup and forget about the adornments entirely, even when her husband calls later and asks, ‘How did it go at the cemetery?’ because she feels everything deeply right now–it is something she will miss later after her mother is merely dead instead of newly dead–and then can’t hang onto anything at all because the nature of being not dead means going onto the next thing and the next thing and the next, and room service is an outrageous $17 for a grilled cheese plus automatic 18% gratuity.
The book of adornments comes back to her though, randomly and for years. When she is wolfing down a ban mi during a too-short lunch hour, bad clip art ban mi appears in her mind (food theme); when she is applying stain stick to her son’s grassy soccer shorts: stain stick (domesticity theme); when she is beside her husband in the bathroom mirror, watching the toothpaste foaming down his chin like rabid dog: foamy chin (marriage theme). It haunts her. She never took herself for someone who’d be haunted, and if she’d taken herself as someone who’d be haunted, she’d have picked a different ghost: ghost (orphan theme).
Miriam Gershow: I’m a novelist (The Local News) and story writer. My longer stories have appeared in Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West and others. Lately, I’ve been fully seduced by flash, with short shorts in a couple anthologies and also Pithead Chapel, HAD, District Lit, and Variant Lit, where I won their Inaugural Pizza Prize.
image: MM Kaufman