All right. Who do we have today?
Madeline Ahlgrim, seventy-nine years old, heart attack. Calling hours at six.
Nah, Jenny did it on the morning shift. We're just dressing and setting the face. The family's supposed to bring a photo over this afternoon.
Cutting it close, huh?
Tell me about it. Jenny almost lost it when they forgot the shoes and socks and asked her to 'pick up a pair.' I'm hoping we can get in and out before upstairs starts prepping for the wake.
Sounds good to me. I could use an early night. You wouldn't believe the weekend I just had. I ended up watching Lacey the whole time. Feel like I lost ten pounds just running around the house after her.
Oh, yeah? Your family out of town or something?
Yeah, Joe had to fly to Columbus for some conference, some neurology thing, and my sister-in-law's out west for a wedding. Spent the weekend at their place, over by the hiking trail, you know, where the old fire hall used to be.
How old's Lacey now, three, four?
She'll be four this summer. Starting preschool in August, can you believe it?
Jesus, man, you're getting old.
Don't even joke about it. The other day I found four gray hairs, Tom. I feel like high school was yesterday, you know? But all of a sudden I've got a house and a car payment and a niece in preschool. Like, what is that?
Hand me the cotton? Thanks.
There was this one dicey moment this weekend, though. It's bedtime, right, I'm about to read Lacey her favorite story, and she looks up and asks, out of nowhere, okay, and you've got to picture what she looks like when she says it, I've just gotten her out of the bath and put her in one of those one-piece pajama things with the arm and leg parts all connected and shit, what do you call them—
Onesies, thank you, she's wearing these pink onesies with stars all over and she smells just like baby shampoo, all nice and clean and fresh, that innocent little kid smell, you know, and she's just staring up at me with those huge eyes, my brother's eyes. Plus her body's like half buried under all these ponies and stuffed animals and Mr. Snuggles, that's what we call her blanky, I swear it's like a sarcophagus in that bed, and so— are you picturing it?— she looks up and asks me, 'Uncle John, where do we go when we're gone?'
Yeah, I know. I'm telling you, I was totally floored. Like, what do you say to that? We weren't even talking about anything, she was going on and on about this mermaid she saw on TV, and then boom, out of nowhere, what happens when we die? I mean, how can you possibly answer that question in a non-fucked way?
Hey, what color lipstick are we thinking here?
That coral-looking one? Or maybe that darker pink?
Yeah, let's go with the pink. Anyway, man, that's rough. I remember this time when my kid was little and he asked me where the fish in his aquarium went when we flushed them down the toilet. His mom must have been out somewhere, otherwise she would have been on top of it, she would have had a whole story concocted, 'oh, Goldie's gone to the big pond in the sky and he's swimming around with all his carnival fish friends, all the carnies are leaving them alone instead of swallowing them or dumping them down the porta-potties or whatever the fuck they do at county fairs,' but I fucking panicked. I told him they got flushed into the sewers and from there they went into the lake, where they decomposed. I'll never forget the look on his face when I said that. Took him a long, long time to like the beach again.
It's lose-lose, right? What do you do? I mean, in theory I've always thought you should level with kids, not feed them all that Santa-Claus-tooth-fairy-feel-good bullshit parents are always shoving down their throats. I mean, not like, 'well, first your heart stops beating and you shit your pants and then they take you to the funeral parlor where Uncle Johnny sews up your eyes and puts bad stage makeup on you,' not that degree of honesty or anything, but, you know, not angels and pearly gates either.
Speaking of, do we have any of that brown mascara left, the really light stuff? Yeah, that one. So what did you end up telling her?
I needed, like, a pause button so I could go into the other room and regroup for a minute. I needed a fucking drink. And she just looked at me, really looked, you know, like she was peering into my soul to see if I was trying to sell her some bogus line, and while I was still trying to figure out what to say, she just said in that really sad little kid voice, 'I don't think I want to go, Uncle John.' And I looked at her and I said, 'me neither, sweetie, but we're all going.'
You said that? You actually said that to your four-year-old niece? Rough stuff, man.
But wait, then I kind of recover, you know, and I tell her to hold on, that it's actually not that bad. I tell her, 'think of it like a long journey, like a night trip on a train, one where everything's quiet and dark and the wind is sort of whooshing past the window, and you're sleepy, so sleepy, you're about to drift off, and nothing's scary, nothing hurts, it's just blank, perfectly empty, and when you wake up you'll be somewhere better, somewhere where nothing hurts, with stars above you and oceans below you, the schools of phosphorescent fish twinkling in their dark waters, a quiet island in the largest lagoon, and on that island a person just like you, maybe walking in the damp sand or maybe gathering rare flowers or even hiding scared in a jungle, and that person might look up at the sky and the bright light that is you and wish they knew what their future held, wish for anything good, and by the time they finish the wish you're already flying on, pouring through the clouds and sky like wind or stars, and it will all be so beautiful you'll barely notice you're saying goodbye.' I tell this all to my niece, and she listens to the whole thing, and then she closes her eyes and she pulls her blanket up to her chin and she says goodnight, sweet dreams, see you tomorrow.
BIO: A graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University, Gabrielle Hovendon has taught in New York, Ohio, and, most recently, Spain. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Southwest Review, Redivider, Tupelo Quarterly, and Ninth Letter. She is currently at work on a novel about two nineteenth-century mathematicians.