Jackie is dead. I wrote a eulogy for her on 3×5 cards. I have them in my purse. The Mesa Vista Mortuary sits in the middle of a black, heat-softened parking lot. The morning sun has already bleached the sky over Tucson skull-white. Two ugly bronze armadillos flank the mortuary door. I lean against one of them, take out the cards, and rehearse under my breath: I met Jackie seventeen years ago. We sat together in a botany lab at the University of Arizona. She felt sorry for me because I couldn’t draw a fern. We became best friends.
Jackie would not have called me her best friend if she had known about her husband and me and the airport hotel.
The AC inside the Mesa Vista Mortuary is set cold enough to keep fish. Lights are turned low and a few figures mill about in the murk. When my eyes adjust, the first person I see is my ex-husband Leon. At six foot eight, with bony wrists always exposed beneath the jacket cuffs and black hair so thick you could stand a fork in it, Leon resembles no one so much as Abe Lincoln, which gave him an unfair advantage in divorce court.
When Leon sees me, the great shelf of his forehead bulges in my direction. He says, “Have you been drinking?” and I say, “How are the kids?”
Leon is a pilot. He is systematic, overly cautious, methodical. These traits serve him well around commercial aircraft but drive me personally to the outskirts of sanity. He does a quick flight-check up and down my body, my clothes, looking for the signs drinking leaves. I show him my three-by-five cards, as if they prove sobriety.
“I’m giving a speech,” I say, because I hate saying the word “eulogy.” “I haven’t touched anything.” Okay, two last night as I wrote out the cards and one this morning––a Bloody Mary in a diner with my scrambled eggs––but that’s not long-term drinking, that’s only public-speaking-best-friend-dead drinking.
Leon narrows his deep-set eyes. “Because I can’t let the kids—”
“Yes, Leon, I know. How are they?”
He sighs. Long pause. Then he says, “Alex is on a field trip today.”
“Does he have a lunch?” I ask.
Leon gives me the what-do-you-think gaze.
“Field trip where?” I say.
“The botanical gardens.”
“He loves the botanical gardens!” I blurt it so loudly a few people turn and stare. They probably think I’m drunk.
“Yes,” Leon says, “He’s excited about the cacti.”
“Jackie taught him.”
“And Lucy?” I can barely whisper my daughter’s name.
“She swam without those things,” Leon says.
“Yes. She swam without them. She reminds me every five minutes.”
My first thought is, “Wait until I tell Jackie.” Then I remember Jackie’s dead.
A chime sounds and people move toward the flower-decked entryway marked “Chapel.” Leon pivots and walks away. His towering butte of black hair grazes a plastic lily as he passes through the chapel door.
Each folding chair in the chapel holds a program––a sheet of ivory paper embossed with an armadillo under a saguaro cactus. I sit in the second-to-last row, in time to watch Jackie’s husband Todd come in with their nine-year-old son, David. David wears a stiff, miniature three-piece suit in navy blue and strangles a single yellow daisy in both hands. Bewildered, or wanting to escape, he looks back at the door while walking forward. He stumbles, almost falls. Todd clamps his big hands on his son’s shoulders and steers him toward the front row. I look away, burn my gaze into my program, but the image of Todd’s hands is etched there, tan fingers with a few golden hairs and the chunk of gold wedding ring. That image meant nothing until six months ago when Todd started placing his broad tanned hands on inappropriate parts of my body at inappropriate moments. He would say inappropriate things at the same time, such as “I want you,” but really the hands were the best part.
The hands are what I remember most from the first time, when Todd cornered me in my own garage during a party. The party was to celebrate the visitation rights I’d won by graduating from a rehab clinic that cost Leon a gratifying amount of money.
Todd trapped me by the shelves that still held Leon’s disaster supplies, though Leon and the kids had fled weeks before. He buried one golden hand in my hair behind my neck and put the other in the back pocket of my jeans. The biggest surprise was how much I liked it. All of a sudden, I had a chance to redeem the few self-esteem coupons I was still holding after Leon got custody. I had a chance to believe I would emerge on the sunny side of the am-I-still-desirable debate. I had a chance to transfer the amber glow I got from alcohol to the golden hands of Todd. It was like secret drinking to soak up his touch on the sly from time to time. I believed those hands were keeping me sober. It might’ve been true, too, because I did stay sober until Jackie died and I had to work on the eulogy.
At the front of the chapel, a woman wearing a lavender robe and a very natural-looking hair extension steps up to a white podium decorated with a gold armadillo. According to the embossed program, this is Pastor Alicia. She glances around the room making serious eye contact. She has lavender-tinted glasses and her moist expression mingles sadness with courageous resignation. To my horror, she introduces Marian Gunderson. I scan the program, wondering if this can possibly be legitimate. There it is, first speaker, Dr. Marian Gunderson.
Marian Gunderson is the top head-shrinker from the over-priced rehab place that dried me out. She always wore green eye shadow, even at the eight a.m. group therapy sessions where I made up preposterous episodes of childhood cruelty to help justify my drinking. The staff called her “Dr. G.” and joked in private that it stood for God, but my secret name for her was “Dr. Greenshadow.”
Jackie visited me in rehab almost every day. She wanted to make sure I didn’t go over the wall, and she wanted to deliver this disgusting yogurt she made that supposedly could cure anything. During that time, she got all cozy with Marian Gunderson. How this brief––and, I had hoped, superficial––friendship resulted in Marian Gunderson’s having a prime slot on the embossed agenda at the Mesa Vista Mortuary, I will never know.
Marian is wearing a pink suit and turquoise jewelry worthy of a Hopi deity. From her tiny pink leather pumps, the tops of her feet swell out like boiled sausages. She steadies herself at the podium, every inch the grieving dowager, preparing to dispense wisdom. No tacky three-by-five cards for Marian. Opening a leather portfolio, she puts on pink-framed reading glasses and begins: “I learned from Todd here”––quivering smile in Todd’s direction––“that last Friday Jackie was down near Tumacacori looking for Turk’s Head cactus.” Marian drags one turquoise-freighted hand to her face to adjust the glasses. “Did you know that when the Turk’s Head blooms, the flower lasts only one day?”
As if I weren’t already trembling like a wino begging for change, Marian is skating a little too close to my own hard-worked, three-by-five theme. “Wasn’t it just like Jackie to be seeking something rare?” she intones. “After all, wasn’t Jackie herself something rare?”
The smugness of her flimsy claim on Jackie creates in me an instantaneous, full-body imperative for booze. I almost cry out with the need for it, and, when a strange girl in front of me with a birthmark on her neck turns to stare, I realize I have made some kind of sound. I shuffle to a random card in my three-by-five deck. It reads: Jackie loved how cactus was beautiful and scary at the same time. She once told me cactus was like truth, growing in dangerous conditions.
Jackie had given me the truth-and-cactus lecture the day she found the tiny Interlacing Spine cactus, way up in the Sierrita Mountains. I was still with Leon then, but he’d started talking divorce. Jackie kept taking me on cactus trips, far into the desert. “Out of bottle range,” as she put it. That day’s outing was typical. I sweated out a hangover, and Jackie sat in the dirt happily entering Echinocactus intertextus in her log. She flipped her sketchbook open and pulled a box of colored pencils from her pack.
“Just think,” she said, “a thousand feet higher or lower and we’d never find this.”
“Imagine,” I said, crouching next to a boulder in its one inch of shade.
“Everything has to be right.” She peered in close at the pinkish spines, then started to draw. “All the conditions. That’s what I love.”
“You love conditions?” I asked.
“I love how you get certain things in certain conditions. It’s like truth.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is. Think about it,” she said.
“Do I have to?” The rock jabbed my ribs.
“Yes, you do. People walk around thinking they’re so honest, but truth only matters in certain conditions.”
“Like when it’s hot enough to melt rocks?” I asked.
She laughed. “Sort of,” she said. “It has to at least be dangerous.”
“Sure. Danger is like a nutrient for truth. When you have danger, you get the best truth. When it’s safe, who cares?”
She put a few pencils back, so I got up. “Can we go now?”
“No.” She pulled out a freshly sharpened green one. “For instance,” she asked, “do you love Leon?”
I knelt in the dust next to her and watched her draw. “Only in the way one loves swampland for the rich life it breeds.”
“Seriously,” Jackie said.
“Jackie,” I put my arms around her. “Go to hell, okay?”
“See? It’s dangerous.” She shrugged out of my embrace. “Just tell me. Do you love Leon?”
“Now why would I not love Leon, when he puts a quart of bleach in every load of laundry and he has our house wired with so many alarms I feel like a lifer at San Quentin and he calls all the way from Hong Kong to ask about the kids’ bowel movements and the algae level in the fish tank?” I watched her darken the ridged spirals of the cactus. “But come to think of it, I did love Leon, until he asked for a divorce.”
“That’s the drinking,” Jackie snapped. “Without the drinking, Leon adores you.” She smudged the green with her little finger. “How I used to envy you having Leon,” she said, “I loved the way he cried nonstop from the day you agreed to marry him until you got back from your honeymoon. He was so grateful.”
“Crying’s easy for Leon,” I said.
“Look how he got out of the military and dropped the fighter-pilot stuff. That was all for you.” She switched the green pencil for a light gray and started on the spines. “Then all that overtime, all those flights, just so you could have that house and everything.”
“All he wanted to do was fly anyway,” I said.
She darkened the base of each tiny spine. “And he hung in there with the midwife too, both times. No other husband we know did that.”
“He had a crush on the midwife.”
“He did not. Leon adores you. Alex and Lucy worship him.”
“Well, they’re young and impressionable.”
She pointed the pencil at me. “Leon has sacrificed plenty for you.”
“Right,” I said. “You try living up to all that.”
“So it’s hard. You should tell him that.”
“Because it’s dangerous,” she said. “It’s scary. Danger’s the whole reason truth matters.”
Dr. Greenshadow removes her pink-framed glasses and closes her leather portfolio. Thankfully, I have missed the remainder of her little talk. Her sausage-feet find their tentative way off the podium, and she sits back down between Todd and Leon in the front row. She squeezes Todd’s hand with her turquoise-laden fingers.
Pastor Alicia re-materializes and suggests we raise our voices in a hymn, the words to which are printed in our program. A few chords of introduction emanate from an unseen electric organ. I want Marian Gunderson to let go of Todd’s hand. Not that I have any legitimate claim to Todd’s hand or to any of Todd’s body parts, but a few weeks ago we did finally meet in a tapas bar near the Tucson airport. Sobriety had made me much more reckless than drinking ever did.
In the tapas bar I found Todd hunched over a basket of chips and a job-opening printout from a headhunter firm.
“Got laid off,” he said.
“Jackie told me.”
The broad, tanned hands quickly folded the printout and stuffed it in the briefcase at his feet.
“Have you seen your kids?” he asked.
“Once a week, as long as I don’t drink.”
“Leon sends them over with little bottles of antiseptic hand-wash and packets of tissue.”
“Good old Leon.”
I looked at Todd’s club soda. “You can drink,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“Oh yes.” I sounded definite. “I’m a model citizen now.”
He ordered a beer. His golden hands moved the club soda aside, making way for the real thing. His fingernails were flat and clear, like little panes of glass. “I admire you,” he said.
“Please, don’t admire me.”
“Just don’t. I don’t want admiration.”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know. Validation.”
The waiter brought the beer. It made a solid, tempting sound when he set it on the table.
“You’re valid,” Todd said. “I hereby validate you.” He saluted me with the beer, then gulped half of it.
“Thanks,” I said, “but we’re supposed to validate ourselves.”
“Oh, I get it. Therapy.”
“Yes. Very important.”
One of his golden hands, as if it had just remembered something, went to his shirt pocket. “There’s a hotel near here.” The windowpane fingers drew out two key cards and dropped them in the condensation on the table.
“You’ve done this before,” I said, fighting the impulse to swallow the rest of his beer plus every other unfinished drink within a three-table radius. “Is this a regular routine for you?”
“I’ve admired you for so long,” Todd said.
I looked at him.
“Sorry.” He grinned. “I’ve validated you for so long.”
“Why?” I asked. “When you have Jackie.”
The hands opened out, as if to confirm Jackie wasn’t there at the moment, then came together in a prayerful clasp.
“You look so beautiful, sitting there,” he said.
I was weak enough to go with Todd from the tapas bar to the hotel room. In rehab they called it “surrogate vice.” The real term is cowardice. Todd strove for a mood of jaunty seduction, stripping to his dryer-shrunken Jockey-wear and adjusting the blinds to create a bordello-inspired half-light. But my nerve was failing fast, so I snapped the blinds shut and rushed through lovemaking like it was a task with a time limit. Every minute or so a jet took off right over our heads and the added noise made faking easier. Then I counted twenty-eight more jets and got up and left. I drove for hours, past innumerable bars, taverns, package stores, billboards for Black Velvet, neon martini glasses with neon olives in them, corner bodegas carrying Carta Blanca, kids on curbs with six-packs of long-necks, and my favorite liquor store where I could’ve found the Jack Daniels in the dark.
Now the hymn is almost over. My armadillo-embossed program tells me Pastor Alicia will offer reflections on the theme of “Loss and Renewal.” After that, it will be my turn.
When they found Jackie she was lying half a mile from her pickup with her sketchbook under her. She was in the foothills near Tumacacori, sketching a Turk’s Head cactus she discovered in a shallow arroyo. I can see her entering Echinocactus horizonthalonius in her log and can only imagine her joy, because the Turk’s Head was in full flower. Todd showed me the sketch, the lumpy pincushion body with its fat spines topped by the improbable pink blossom that would last one day. Next to the sketch, Jackie had written “at last.” I still picture the aneurysm that killed her as one of those delicate pink flowers, trying to open inside her skull.
My nervous fingers have smeared some of the penciled lines on my three-by-five cards. Pastor Alicia says my name and looks out over the heads for someone to come forward. I cannot feel my feet, but apparently am moving toward the gold armadillo on the podium. Pastor Alicia greets me, palms-out, with a little shepherdess benediction.
I put the hopelessly jumbled cards on the podium and look at the audience. In the front row of folding chairs, Jackie’s son David hunches over his ruined yellow daisy. Todd pokes a tan finger through his embossed armadillo and refuses to meet my gaze. Marian Gunderson, still in love with her own speech, reads silently from her leather portfolio. Leon weeps openly, his forehead huge with backed-up tears.
The whole room blossoms pink and hot with danger. Pinpricks of it sting my hands and chest like cactus spines. I suppose Jackie would say the conditions were right for truth. I suppose she’d want me to be honest and brave. I suppose she’d ask me to abandon my three-by-five cards and simply tell people she remained undaunted. She looked for that damn Turk’s Head for years. She always wanted to hike one more stretch of desert in case we saw it. Sometimes she actually pulled me along by the hand and said, “Think how mad we’d be if it were right here and we missed it.”
“Eulogy” first appeared in Pebble Lake Review, Vol. IV No. 3, Summer 2007.