ADVERTISEMENT

The Relative Weight of Angels by Avril Breckenridge Barron

 

Avril Breckenridge Barron earned her BA from UC Berkeley.  She has worked in higher education and fundraising, and has done volunteer work with animal rescue and animal rights groups.  She and her husband live just north of San Francisco in a household run by several dogs and cats.  She has finally finished a novel.

The cab rolled toward me, headlights and roof lamp glowing in the dark.

“You need some help with that?” The driver rolled down his window and watched me through the rain.

“No,” I said, climbing in behind him, trying to keep the box I held level and dry. The cab was damp inside. The smell coming from the pine-tree-shaped air freshener hanging off the mirror reminded me of a men’s room I’d had to use at a gas station once, and I hoped the tang of urine wouldn’t creep out from under the fake greenery. I pressed my forehead against the cold window and peered into the night.

“You a vet?” the driver asked.

“No.”

His eyes flicked from the road to my reflection so many times I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and held it at the ready as if I could zap him with it.

“What’s in the box?” he asked.

Good Christ, what did he suppose was in the box, someone leaving the animal hospital in tears at 4:00 a.m.? “A dead cat,” I said.

“Hmm,” he said, nodding. “I figured. Either that or a puppy. Yours?”

I had an image of my hands gripping his neck and shaking him until his head snapped off and fell into the back seat. I’d need a bigger box. “YES.”

“Sorry.” The word came out tired, like he worked it too hard. “Lost my dog last month.”

I looked up and studied his reflection, recognized the heaviness around his eyes. Sorrow is sneaky. It can trip you from behind, drop you and sit on your chest until you lose the strength to beg for mercy. My sister had taught me all about it. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Do you know what you’re gonna do with her?” His voice lightened. “I know this pet crematorium, they’re really nice people. They got me an urn, it’s engraved with Riley’s name and it’s really expensive looking but they didn’t charge me that much, I mean it wasn’t too bad, like another fifty bucks. So he’s right in my kitchen, up on the counter by where he used to eat.”

His dog ate on the counter? I looked at the box. My name was written on it, and Norman’s. I caressed the sides with my thumbs, tried to convince my hands that they felt his soft coat. I wondered how long it would take to stop seeing him flailing against the sides of the hospital cage, lunging away from the vet who was trying one last thing, pulling away from any touch, even mine. What was I going to do? Maybe I’d sit until I turned to stone, until I cracked open and metamorphosed into something with wings so I could fly away and find him.

“Thanks,” I said, swallowing. “I’ve got the name of a place.”

He went on about the crematorium and chattered about the people who worked there, but I didn’t pay attention. I wanted home in a way I hadn’t since I was a child. I felt the same way I had the first time I got on a school bus, had marched onto it hopelessly, knowing that more tears would not sway my mother who had been through this before with my sisters. Silently, I had walked to the rear so I could sit facing backward and try to memorize every detail of my house and my street, and of my mother, waving. I was sure in my heart that I would never return, knew for a fact I’d been cast adrift into a sea of uncaring strangers and would, from that day on, live my life in a different world.

When we got to my apartment I tried to thank the driver but could only toss a twenty into the front seat before running inside. An idea had taken hold of me when the cab went over a bump. The box had been jostled but… Was I sure it hadn’t moved on its own? What if someone had made a mistake? Wasn’t there a little girl pronounced dead recently who a cop noticed moving or breathing or something almost an hour later? They said if they’d taken her to the morgue and put her in the fridge, well…

I set the box on the kitchen counter and found a knife, worked the blade through the layers of tape, my hands shaking. With no gift had I ever been so hopeful. There was a blanket inside, and the pleading voice of last chance whispered to me. The hospital wouldn’t wrap him in a little white blanket if he were… Was that a plastic bag? It was taped closed and I couldn’t pull it open. I leaned down and tore it with my teeth, felt moist air float past my face. Widening the rip in the plastic, I worked my hand inside, fingers believing they were about to feel Norman’s warm little body, nerves primed for it. But they didn’t. He was cooling, like day’s end.

I groped for a stool and pulled it under me. Sleep had been elusive lately and my senses were playing tricks. I wouldn’t drive to the crematorium until even my bones understood he was dead, until every cell of my body knew for a fact he wouldn’t wake up in some freezer or with flames devouring him. I laid my head next to him and begged, knowing that in almost three decades God had yet to listen to me.

Some time later, my severely outdated ringtone jerked me into an upright position, my heart pounding. I saw the cardboard box and realized it wasn’t going to be the hospital calling with news. As uncomfortable as I was sitting there, I debated trying to go back to sleep but my phone rang again. It was my oldest sister, Margaret. The first call was from her, too, and she’d hung up. Typical. Why she always did that, I’d probably never know. I listened to the message she’d left on her second try. She enunciated into the void, speaking as though to someone foreign or a bit dense.

“I hope you and your kitty cat are doing well,” she said. She never uses animals’ names. I suspect she finds them improper. “Please call me and let me know if you would like a ride to church on Saturday. With the new car you won’t have to squeeze in back with the girls, you know. There are Three Rows of Seating.”

What was she talking about and why did she sound like a commercial? I called her back. “I’m awake.”

“I should hope so.”

“Well, I said I was.”

She paused. “What’s wrong?”

“I lost him, Meg,” I said, starting to cry.

“Him? Who…? Oh, your cat. I’m—well. I am sorry.”

I wiped my nose with a paper towel. “It was horrible. He just died. They thought he was doing okay after the surgery but the doctor called me at midnight and said he was really going downhill. Some asshole blocked me in, I had to call a cab. I got there and they tried, but they couldn’t do anything.” By this time, I was pushing the words out between hitching sobs, and I heard my sister make the first sound she’d made in a few minutes. She sighed.

“It must be hard, but you’d had him for many years. It was his time, Allie,” she said. “I’ll ask Father Mike to do a little Saint Francis thing for you sometime this weekend. Now, parking is going to be tight on Saturday so you should come with us. We’ll pick you up at nine.”

It wasn’t my sister after all, it was the family social secretary. Andrea—Andie, our middle sister—had called Margaret that and, for a few pubescent months, answered our phone, “Miss Margaret Sibley McNamara’s residence.” I hiccupped a laugh and then remembered what Saturday was. It would be the first anniversary of Andie’s death, and we were all going to church for a memorial service then out to the cliff above the sea where we’d scattered her ashes, then back to my parents’ house for lunch.

I looked at the fridge where I’d taped a photo of Andie and me. She was in the pink sweater she’d worn for a solid month after her ninth birthday, so I would have been seven. As usual, I was scowling. She stood with an arm around my shoulders looking at me, her face in profile to the camera. She was smiling, her mouth open, probably telling me one of her knock-knock jokes, which she thought were screamingly funny. Even into adulthood I’d get a voice mail occasionally, the roar of Manhattan in the background, Andie dramatizing the latest joke she’d dredged up using her best stage voices, usually one deep and one squeaky. She always said the same thing before hanging up: “Are we happy now? Smile, dag-nabbitty.”

“I thought that was next Saturday,” I said.

“Allison! What are you thinking? It’s day after tomorrow.”

I felt trapped and checked my watch. If I got Norman to the crematorium as soon as they opened, maybe I could pick up his ashes on Saturday. I might need to duck out. Margaret would have a cow if I told her that’s why I needed to drive myself, though. “I’ll call you later and let you know, okay?”

She misunderstood. “Now, let’s get something straight, Allison. You are coming.”

“Meg,” I began, but she interrupted.

“No. This is our sister. I am not going to tell people that you couldn’t come to her First Anniversary Memorial Service because you were upset about an animal. Let’s get our priorities straight, here.”

The easy thing would have been to tell her I was going, just possibly not with her. “Who are you to say?” I yelled, jumping up and knocking over the stool. I lunged for it in case Norman was behind me, the phone flew out of my hand, and I found myself staring at the bowl of kibble by the wall.

“Allison? ALLIE?”

Was that really Margaret squawking, or some hysterical character in a movie on a neighbor’s TV, something I could walk away from? I picked up the phone. “I’m okay.”

 I heard muffled conversation, then her husband’s voice.

“Hey, Dave,” he said.

Dave was the name he and I called each other. For months after he and Margaret started dating he’d gotten Andie’s name and mine mixed up. He decided I needed a nickname and I was thrilled when he said he’d think of one. I can only imagine my face the first time he called me Dave. His name was John but he and his frat brothers all called each other Dave, and since I was a tomboy it felt right, he explained.

“Tell me,” he said, and I poured out the whole, sad story. Unlike Margaret, he knew what to say. Margaret was allergic to animals so she’d never had a pet, and because of that John couldn’t have another dog, which I knew created a lonely hole in his life.

“Anything we can do?” he asked.

“Well…” I wasn’t sure how to say it. “I’m going to take him to the crematorium.”

“Good,” he said. “Want company or no?”

“It’s just…” I paused then blurted, “I want someone to make sure he’s dead.”

He understood. He’d felt the same way when his last dog died. “It’s not like they get hooked up to heart and brain function monitors like people do,” he said, and I flinched, remembering Andie and all her tubes and wires at the end.

“Sit tight,” he said. “We’ll be right there.”

.  .  .

So, John and Margaret came over. John checked Norman, assured me he was dead, and I cried. We drove to the crematorium and I cried. Margaret tried to make small talk about Saturday’s buffet until she realized I was serious about crying then left me alone.

John had to pry the box out of my fingers once we got there. The office was staffed by a snotty Russian woman who wouldn’t tell me when I could pick Norman up. I tried arguing. I wanted to know what would happen and when. I wanted to sit at a round rosewood table with a vase of red poppies and be walked through everything, have every question answered by a kindly man with a blue silk hanky in his breast pocket like it had been with my sister. He had welcomed our questions. John thanked the Russian and propelled me out.

“Pissing her off isn’t going to do any good,” he said, as we got back into the car.

I wanted to go home and said so.

“Maybe you should spend the rest of the week with Mother and Dad,” Margaret said.

I thought about my parents and the coming weekend. Father Mike would be floating around, getting on my nerves with his talk of God’s Will and God’s Love and God’s Mysterious Reasons for doing rotten things no one else could get away with but, being God, of course, He got a pass. I thought of my childhood home, my bedroom where I had gone to escape the family values and find some of my own.

“I need some time alone,” I told Margaret.

“Okay,” she said. “But pull yourself together. Don’t forget Saturday’s about Andie.”

.  .  .

My mother gave birth to a son who died of crib death when Margaret was three, and another three years passed before Mom got pregnant again. So, when she was seven, Margaret became an overprotective little mother with that child, Andie, and to a lesser extent the following year with me. Even though I was the youngest, Andie was everyone’s baby. I entered the world fifteen months after she did, probably a “whoops.” I must have frightened my mother out of wanting any more. After all, she could have had another child like me whose behavior forced her to always call me by my full given name.

But Andie was always Andie, never Andrea Elizabeth. She left for college when I was sixteen, and I lived alone with my parents and Norman for another two years in a house that was quiet except for college breaks and holidays. The silence wasn’t uncomfortable, though, until Andie died. Until then, it was the stillness of things resting in their proper place, the quiet satisfaction of a job finished. These days, when I drove up the street and saw the house where I was raised, I had to take a deep breath before I entered that dead air. I expected to see curtains of moss rolling off the roof, covering the windows and insulating the inhabitants. The house had become my mother’s living tomb, the studio in back my father’s, where he sought solace in scotch and Mozart. Light and life had little place there, could hold no sway against the memories my parents clung to. If I never went there again it would be too soon. I would be there on Saturday.

.  .  .

The phone woke me again the next morning. It was Ted, my ex-boyfriend. We’d been kind of serious for a couple of years but had broken up four months before. He’d become Mr. Reliable since then.

“I talked to Christine last night. She gave me the news.” Chris was my best friend. “I’ve got some pictures you might want—of you and Norman. I’ll bring them to the café whenever you can make it.”

At 10:15 I entered the café in the market where we shopped. He was sitting at our old table. Without speaking, he slid an envelope toward me.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked.

He grunted and shook his head. “Don’t be an ass.”

“Okay,” I said, and turned to go. “Thanks.”

Five minutes later he appeared next to my shopping cart. “Why all the junk food?” he asked. “And why aren’t you at work?”

I sighed, knowing that once he started asking questions the likelihood of him shutting up any time soon was slim. “I took a few days off. The family’s in town for Andie’s memorial anniversary thing. I suppose chips and dip is the least I can do.”

“Don’t underestimate yourself. You could do less.”

“Stuff it,” I said. “And why are we having this conversation? Surely you have things to do. Very busy, very important, remember? Don’t you have to be in Prague by 3:00?”

“Aren’t you the funny one today. Can I come to Andie’s thing?”

“NO.” I swung around and almost whacked a kid in the head with my purse. “What is the matter with you, anyway? Norman dies and you materialize. And you want to come to a memorial for someone you met, what, twice? Get a hobby. A different hobby.”

He hesitated, his body still, like someone had dared him to hold his breath. Even the wavy hair he pushed back, the bit that would jump in front of his right eye and annoy everyone for days before he’d go to the barber, seemed poised. “Well, I’m here now and if I can help, I’d like to.”

“Why?” I yelled. “We aren’t together anymore, remember? There is no here, here.”

“Okay, already,” he said, steering my cart into a deserted aisle. “Listen, I’ve got a friend who rescued some kittens and she needs homes for them. How ‘bout if I bring you one.”

“Sure,” I said. “Why don’t you bring me a new sister, too?”

“Allie…”

“Family isn’t like cereal, Ted.” I rolled away from him. “You don’t go to the store and stock up when you’re running low.” I stopped at the end of the aisle and looked back at him. “Friends, yes,” I said. “Family, no.”

.  .  .

I slept through the alarm clock in the morning then spent ten minutes on hold with the crematorium. Norman wouldn’t be ready today. I threw on my clothes and raced to church, tiptoed up the aisle to squeeze into the wide space between my parents just as the service was starting. I ignored Margaret’s glare and closed my eyes. When we were kids, Andie and I used to elbow each other to stay awake in the somnolent atmosphere of our stone church, compensatory heat rising like souls to heaven from the furnace below, the smell of incense like a sleeping draught. Can you hear me, Andie? Do I cause you sorrow because, in the company of your mourners on this wintry day, you’re not the one I ache for? No, if anyone would understand, she would. I imagined her standing with Peter and Paul, watching them shake their heads and tsk at me, telling them no, don’t judge her by this. Did they never have pets, those saintly men? Oh, what they missed.

Margaret cornered me when the service was over. “I asked Father to speak with you, remember? Since you insisted on bringing your car, you can drive him out to the cliff.”

I watched my family leave and wanted to disappear with them. I didn’t, and was subjected to fifteen bonus minutes of Father Mike’s reminiscences about Andie, for which I was not in the mood, and a lot of helpful information about the role animals play in God’s Kingdom. Servitude to and succor of humans in life was their final reward, according to Father. His heaven was Bipeds Only.

When we got to the winding, two-lane road where the ocean appears, stretched out and purring beneath the breaking sun, I came close enough to clipping a couple of bicyclists to make Father Mike get a death-grip on the armrest and keep quiet for the duration, with the exception of a few whistling inhalations sucked between his teeth. Once we got to the parking area, I stopped behind Margaret’s car and suggested to Father that he get out, said I needed to find something in the trunk and didn’t want to hold him up. He opened the door then paused and reminded me, with a patronizing smile and one index finger pointing at God-knew-what, that I’d never been able to keep track of anything as a child. If he hadn’t gotten out of the car right then I would have screamed. I parked as far away as possible and waited until everyone had gone ahead along the path to the knoll where, as a teenager, Andie had loved to come and watch the sea and sing, free to flex her powerful and soaring voice away from people who, modesty convinced her, would be disturbed by the racket of her practice. She’d been matter-of-fact about her voice, treating it the way someone might a Jack Russell that would implode with pent-up energy if not taken out and exercised every day. Watching the procession from behind, it occurred to me that we looked like the family in “The Thornbirds” in one of the gazillion funeral scenes, black-clad mourners traipsing along a hilltop behind a priest. I squinted and scanned the crowd to make sure my grandmother wasn’t anywhere near my mother. No, my brother-in-law had positioned his reassuring bulk between Mom and the others. Today would be hard enough on her without a re-enactment of last year. When Andie died, Grandma had grabbed my mother by the arm on the walk back to the car from scattering Andie’s ashes, drew her aside on that windy bluff to tell her that her tears should be shed in private. Nobody, she said, had ever seen the Kennedy women cry in public and my mother was at least as well raised as they were. Even Margaret had been aghast at that one. I trailed out behind them as slowly as I could.

Assuming that some member of my family would notice Father Mike standing by the side of the road looking confused, I lit out early and, I’m afraid to say, managed to take a wrong turn or two on the way back, which delayed my arrival at my parents’ house. When I finally got there, I went and hid in the kitchen. My aunt was at work ignoring the perforations in a roll of pop-can biscuit dough and attempting what looked like some kind of preschool origami with it, to my grandmother’s dissatisfaction.

“For heaven’s sake, Mary, you’re wadding it,” Grandma said.

My mother was nowhere to be seen. She had taken to wandering off to sit in a rocking chair in the guest bedroom, as Margaret still referred to it in her refusal to acknowledge that Mom slept there.

“Sit down, both of you,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

“Pish,” Grandma said, but sat. “What do you know about cooking?”

“No one came for the food.”

“Shows what you know,” she retorted. “And what have you been up to lately, Miss?”

“Taking care of a sick cat, mostly.”

Grandma clicked her tongue a few times.

“Is she better?” Aunt Mary asked.

I watched my hands smoothing dough, fixing the mess before I answered. “He died Thursday night.”

“Oh, Allie.” I heard a chair move and felt my aunt’s big hands on my shoulders, her cheek on my hair. “I’m sorry. What an unhappy week.”

Don’t cry, I ordered myself. If you do, they’ll look at you like you’ve grown a second head.

“You should be married,” my grandmother announced. “If you had a husband and children you’d be so busy you wouldn’t have time to worry about a cat.”

I felt my face burn and remembered a slap fight I’d had with a cousin when we were ten. She was the one the adults had always thanked then patted and sent away, and if I was around they’d announce what a good girl she was, unaware that her manners were strictly reserved for them—around us, she was a total bitch. Even Andie didn’t like her and Andie liked everybody. A week of grounding had been meted out as punishment for the fight, but it had been worth it to pull her down into the trenches and see her turn from a smarmy little tattle into a panting, red-faced fury I could finally meet on equal footing.

“Really?” I asked, slamming a cookie sheet onto the counter. “I had no idea. What a good thing I came today.”

“That photo collage of Andrea is lovely,” Aunt Mary said quickly, and I didn’t need to see her looking from Grandma to me and back again to know she was doing it.

Grandma was having none of that. “It’s appalling,” she said. “I hate having to see it every time I walk into this house.”

I wiped my hands and slid the biscuits into the oven. “Do you mean… Is it always there?” I had to agree that the thought of it on permanent display was a little weird. Yeah, you who slept a whole morning with a dead cat next to you, you should talk, I thought. Do you think you know all the strange places where comfort hides?

“You wouldn’t have to ask if you visited more often, Miss.” Grandma took her glasses off and smacked them onto the table. “You’re the youngest, you should be home the most, not the least.”

No, the award for being home the least goes to Andie, I damn near said, but took the high road and escaped into the living room. This was home? This empty place? I slumped against the wall, angry and tired.

Margaret extricated herself from a knot of uncles and came over. “Where’s Mother? We’ve got to get lunch set out.”

“Upstairs, probably,” I said. “I’ll get her. You’d go to the wrong room.” She would, too, even with nobody there to see her do it.

Mom was sitting by the window from where she could see the playhouse Dad had built before Margaret was born. Of all of us, Andie had liked it best and spent long summer afternoons there putting flowers in milk bottles and arranging her families of dolls, and just looking at that playhouse made us all think of her. On the rare occasions I ducked inside I imagined I could smell her. She always smelled good, like the sweet peas and freesias my father still planted under the windows of the little house, along each side.

“People are asking for you,” I said.

“Let them.”

I sat on the edge of the bed and noticed how loose my mother’s clothes hung and how ragged her cuticles were. Her pale blue eyes seemed blank, as if someone had taken an eraser and rubbed out every image of happiness that had ever shined on those retinas. Any memory that kept her heart beating would have to be faint, reproduced over and over in her mind, as lifeless as the photos my grandmother found so objectionable. I knew how my mother must have ached, strained to throw some manifestation of my sister from her heart into the world, to flesh out the vision and touch Andie again.

“How do you get through it, Mom?”

She looked at me for the first time since I’d entered the room. “Get through it? I don’t get through it. I don’t want to get through it.” She sighed and looked back out the window. “When your brother died, for awhile, I thought I would die, too. But I was young, and I had Margaret to take care of, and your father was…well. Then I had Andie, and you, and I had so much to do. Anyway, the years went by and at a certain point I realized I couldn’t remember how I’d felt right after I lost him. I mean, I remembered, but I couldn’t really feel it anymore. That awful, constant ache had gone. That made me so…” She grunted, a mirthless sort of chuckle. “I suppose, ‘chagrined’ is the best word.”

“Why?” I asked, even though everything she said made sense.

“Because I’d lost him again. I got busy with all of you and I lost him. I’m not going to do that with Andie. I don’t want to feel better. I don’t want to look away from this. I had to, last time.” She was quiet for a minute. “Do you understand?”

I’d been looking out the window toward Andie’s playhouse, but what I saw was Norman, chasing ladybugs in the grass. He was the only family I lived with and I was the only person he loved. Where there had been two, there was now one. Simple. I turned to her and nodded, unable to speak.

“Yes, I imagine you do,” she said. “You have a loss of your own, now.”

 “Andie was my loss, too,” I said, stung.

“I know,” she said. “Did you know that Norman is mine?” I must have looked puzzled because she stood up and hugged me, her cheek cold against mine. “I suppose I shouldn’t have assumed you’d know that when you hurt, I hurt, too.” With a hand on my back, she steered me from the room and down the stairs.

.  .  .

Mom was pounced on immediately so I wandered off and peeked into the dining room. Guests were gathered around the table, plates in hand. The thought of eating and drinking was repulsive. I didn’t want to feel better. I understood my mother—I wanted to hurt. But I knew Margaret would nag me unless she saw me with some food, so I joined the herd and inched around the table, taking tiny spoonfuls of things until I stood before a red, green, and orange Jell-O salad probably made in one of my aunt’s copper molds. Sunlight filtered through the lace curtains and illuminated it, setting a golden fire to the bits of fruit that hung silent and still. It looked like a cathedral made of stained glass. When we were kids, Andie and I dreamed up an entire kingdom to populate a snow globe with a castle inside that someone had given Margaret. This jewel-toned edifice reminded me of the world we imagined. It had lain under a magic spell and in it no one ever died.

By three o’clock, most of the guests were gone. Margaret stood over Dad, who sat in his chair in the living room, glassy-eyed.

“He’s so tired.” She touched the back of her hand to his cheek the way she did with her kids when they got a fever.

“He’s plowed, Meg,” I said.

“And what if he is?” She straightened, lips compressed, and she glanced around to see if anyone had heard me. “Maybe you would be too, if you’d lost a child. If you had children, Allie, you might understand.”

I felt shock pull the blood from my face. I turned and took a few quick steps away, walked right into Andie’s collage, and knocked it to the floor. As I looked down at her face, I realized that all the people I loved would probably die before I did. I felt the boundaries of my inner world contract then swell to gather in howling wastelands and deserts frozen to crackling stillness. I saw empty walls filling with photos of the dead. A hand on my shoulder made me look up.

“Allie…” Margaret looked tired. “I didn’t mean…”

“Don’t,” I said. “Ssshh.” The way a mother would comfort a child, that’s how softly it came out.

She smoothed my blouse collar and fussed with the white rose pinned to the bodice. “I don’t want you taking him out to the cliff by yourself,” she said. “Let John and me come with you.”

I thought about both the times I’d walked back from the edge of the cliff in the last year. I thought about my family, chattering as they walked to their cars, telling each other to dry their tears, wondering what was for lunch. “No. I want to say goodbye alone.”

“I know you really loved him,” she said, and it sounded like an accusation. “With Andie, we all had each other when we worked on the funeral. But when everything’s done, it’s just you and your own pain and you’re alone with it. You want to be alone with it. That’s what I wanted, too.”

.  .  .

I spent a lonely Sunday missing my dead sister and my dead cat. I flipped through the book of knock-knock jokes Ted had sent me from the road a few months earlier, but I couldn’t find a trace of Andie in those pages. Some kids were playing outside and at the first note of each ragged howl, I would think it was Norman’s voice I was hearing. Every time a bat struck a ball I looked up expecting to see him—it made the same sound his claws had made since they’d dropped with age, clicking on the wooden floors. I would catch glimpses of him out of the corner of my eye and turn, instinct outpacing knowledge, found myself resenting shadows and being disappointed by shoes. I couldn’t help pulling out photos and was dismayed by the transformation that was so gradual I almost hadn’t seen it. Andie’s end had been like a magic act: now you see her, now you don’t. If I lived to be a hundred, the shock would never completely wear off. Some part of me would never believe it, would always be waiting for the magician to tap his hat and pull her out again, undamaged. But with Norman, I’d been watching him die for months without realizing it. He was little and round and fat but he was tiny at the end, almost translucent in the sunshine he followed through the apartment every day. In the evenings he’d cradled himself into the hollow of my shoulder and stayed there for hours while I watched TV or talked on the phone. What I wouldn’t give for five of those minutes back. And just one more knock-knock joke.

I made the mistake of answering the phone and agreed to meet Margaret for an early dinner, not wanting to turn away the olive branch from my sister who was almost never wrong. She maintained a determined friendliness and even hugged me when we parted, a close, kindly-meant hug I must have craved; I clung to her in the parking lot like a child trying to put off that moment of separation—the one when the world darkens and the strangers appear.

.  .  .

When I got home I checked my phone to find a message from the crematorium telling me I could pick Norman up the next day. There was also one from Ted, calling to see how I was, he said. I hesitated, then dialed.

“Can I come?” he asked.

My mouth had formed the word. “No” had made the quick part of the flight, from my brain to my throat, but at the last instant I snatched it back. I imagined the defeat that would cloak Ted’s face, the neutral smile he would strive for while his eyes drooped with the acceptance of exclusion. It was a look I knew, and even though I had planned it, caused it, relished it sometimes, it made me realize that, considering how much of life is about loss anyway, piling on might not be a great idea. In that moment of hesitation I thought of something else. I imagined a hand held out, and a hand taken, and one less hurt in the world. Maybe two.