Gastonia, North Carolina, 1988


The lady officer told her if she wanted a family burial she’d have to make special arrangements for him to be retrieved. The state will assume all burial costs if this isn’t the case, but in such case he can’t be buried anywhere but in the DOC’s own plot in Murfreesboro. In whichever case, she, Mrs Alper, was required to come up to Caledonia tomorrow morning to sign identification papers and to collect personal items such as are wanted. The rest will be properly disposed of. But please, Mrs Alper, understand, if you wish to take your son’s body home you must be accompanied by a licensed mortician and a funeral services vehicle. Then she said in a lower, different voice, a voice that nearly recognized the notion of sorrow – you can’t take him home in your own car is what I’m saying is the policy.

Mrs Alper?


Jean Alper at the kitchen table. Tomorrow is tomorrow. The phone is on the floor. It’s ceased to repeat itself. There may be other sounds out the open kitchen window but she doesn’t hear them. Someone might be mowing a lawn. She wouldn’t know. It’s still today and he’s lying on his back some place they keep cold. It’s cold where they’ve got him and she imagines a large walk-in refrigerator stacked tall with frozen breaded chicken paddies and white plastic buckets of soup, frost growing up his fingernails, across his eyelids. She wants to laugh. It’s June. So cold. She tired, my Lord, did she tire. Maybe she could have tried harder but with Aubrey dead and her brothers so far away and her working nine ten hours a day, it was hard. She could have moved them, but where? Charlotte? She didn’t know anybody in Charlotte. She hardly knew anybody here anymore. People go and that’s it, but she never left because there was no place better she knew of. Anyway, some years you had to sit tight with what you had. She’s got a job. A job’s a job. Well, I can make excuses till Kingdom come and they won’t call an undertaker or iron a decent dress by five-thirty tomorrow morning. He did what he wanted, stubborn as his father but Aubrey, when it came down to it, was a coward. Jordy though never afraid of anything or anybody. Since he was three and tearing up the carpet, her tomato plants, hair of neighbour’s daughters. The neighbours called him pixie terror until he got so big so fast he was just terror. Then they didn’t call him anything. Her fingers thump the table in the silence. So cold. It isn’t as if she doesn’t have people to call. Vince in Wilmington and Dave and Julia in St. Louis. It’s how to say it. Who’d believe the truth now? That he finally caught up with his father. That it was only simple fear. Man the size of a small office building. Because inside there something happened. Supposed to right? Supposed to change you right? On visiting days she’d say, what baby, what? They hurting you? Somebody touching you? And him shaking his head, not that, and waving her away and coughing and laughing and saying, Stupid enough to end up here, stupid enough to be rattled by the doors sliding. And when she drove home that day she thought she understood. So easy. Funny almost, doors. As if he expected there not to be any. The way he said it like doors existed independent of what he was doing in there and yet she thought she understood. There’s doors and there’s doors. Once, another day, he’d rammed his head against the wall in that little ferociously lit room like she wasn’t there at all, kept doing it and doing it and doing it until the guard came and pulled her away, his forehead gashed and pouring. It wasn’t a steady descent to wherever the fear was taking him; it was slow, and some visiting days it wouldn’t be there at all. Some days he let her touch him, his body falling so heavily into hers he’d almost knock her over. A few of the guards were kind to her. In a couple of them she could see them look at her as if she were a vision of their own mothers driving four hours to be humiliated, to be searched, to have the insides of her thighs patted down for the love of a son who didn’t deserve it. Lots of guys had to talk to their visitors through the glass but for Jordy Alper’s mother they unlocked the lawyers’ room and Jordy would say, all right Ma, in here you have to talk like a lawyer. How’s my appeal going? And she’d say all she could think of to say which was I’ve been filing motions galore for you honey and it’s all a wait and see, and sometimes his hands would grip the table in order to talk and he’d say things he never said in his life like tell me about you, Ma, talk about you, and she’d try and he’d listen clutching the table. Mostly he stopped shaving, but some days she’d get there and he’d be clean-shaved and this made it worse not because he was so pale and bleeding at the chin but because he’d want so much out of it. He’d force himself to laugh hard and long at her stories and smile with his face when he talked and watching him perform would exhaust her and he’d read this exhaustion in her eyes and stand up and call the guard and say, Let her go home. No, who’d believe it? My God, so cold. But hadn’t anybody ever noticed that even after he sprouted up taller than his uncles that he still slouched into rooms like he was apologizing for something. Because people turned from the boy. They always had. She’s making excuses. He was a chubby baby with fat grippable elbows. He never cried, only yelped sometimes and some nights Aubrey couldn’t stand to be near it because he said the baby looked at him with eyes that weren’t a baby’s. Sorrow’s worlds different than sadness. Maybe she’s always known this. She looks at the table. There’s a small plate with a half-eaten piece of toast. She doesn’t remember it. Sadness, always lots of it, but this is something new and will become part of her in a way Aubrey’s gone never has. The call a shock and nothing at all like a shock. Sitting right here, the phone rings, the lady officer says words and all of it the start of something she always knew she’d be. My only only. There’s not even a word for it. Your husband dies, you’re a widow. There’s almost joy in it. Why not scream it? Glory. She sits, motionless now, already hating two tongue waggers from work, Brenda and Denise. (You hear it? About Jean’s son? Awful, just terrible, but that boy was bad bad news. Made holy terror look like the Donny Osmond.) Funny, isn’t it? Hilarious – and then they talk about you at the Coke machine. Yea, let him tread down upon my life.


It’s early summer, just after nine in the morning. The window’s open. The curtain bloats, settles, bloats, settles. Jean Alper’s feet are flat on the floor. It will be a long time before the crickets shriek. She’ll wait.


Photo by Swami Stream.

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