by N. West Moss
Franny Bigalski did not want her god-damned wind chimes thrown out when she died. She sat at the dining room table, looking through her address book for Irene Anderson’s new cell number. Irene, the simpleton, would take Franny’s wind chimes without asking a lot of questions.
Franny ran her finger, crooked with arthritis, down the names listed in the address book. “Holy crap,” whispered Franny furrowing her eyebrows. Everyone on the first page was dead. Everyone! Franny turned to the next page, ran her finger down, and then the next and the next.
Only three people in the entire “A” section of her address book were still alive, one of which was Irene, her neighbor of almost fifty years. Franny grudgingly accepted Irene, bland and weak though she could be. Irene had known Curtis, and that made her permanent, and forgivable.
Closing the book, she sipped her Ensure, her throat aching, a metallic taste in her mouth from the chemo. “Well,” she said, staring at nothing. “Well.” It appeared she knew more dead people than living – an unanticipated milestone. All of the people who remembered her brief marriage, her little boy’s life and sudden death, had stranded her in the land of the living. It laid her low to contemplate it.
Despite Franny’s age and illness, Irene was always upbeat. “You’re a fighter,” she told Franny, “a survivor,” terms Franny found chipper and annoying. She wasn’t a fighter, and the idea of struggling to survive seemed ridiculous to her. The battle metaphors of cancer, the fighting and rallying, the way the disease was said to march through one’s body, described Franny’s take on cancer incorrectly. She did not see it as waging a war, a masculine concept in her opinion. She saw it more as, what, a garden being over-taken by weeds, a once happy house collapsing slowly on itself – a natural, if calamitous process. Entropy ordained that endings were so much messier than beginnings.
The doctors had tattooed Franny’s neck so that technicians could aim radiation beams at the tumors in her throat. They irradiated her seventeen times until the tattoos became tiny, blistered welts. Her throat filled with necrotic tissue, which she coughed up and spit into Kleenex. It smelled to her like cat food. Dear God. Every few weeks the doctors dripped IV bags of bright yellow chemicals into her arm, drip, drip, drip, and, when the cancer mustered forces and marched up her throat, the doctors mounted evasive tactics and snipped out an eighth of Franny’s tongue.
The treatment wasn’t working. She had known it for a while, but after looking through her address book that morning, Franny acknowledged a vast fatigue she had been holding at bay. She let it spill over her now, like she was a pitcher and the entire ocean was being poured into her. She was tired of the stupid, strident, pie-eyed battle to keep her alive. For what? Other peoples’ optimism exhausted her. By the time she closed her address book, she had decided to get the end started, had decided to raise the white flag.
Franny went to Dr. Mendelowitz’s office that very day, and gurgled, “No more of this bullshit.” He looked at her expectantly, so she added, “Hospice, Mel. For Christ’s sake, I want out.” He reached for her hand across the papers on his desk. Saying it out loud made her thousand small annoyances with the world fall away.
The doctor’s hand felt warm and dry, like a bridge between now and later. She felt the cool of his thick wedding ring on her fingertips, and was touched, suddenly, to have a witness. Then he let go of her hand, wrote something on her chart and said, “Janey will see you out.” His smile did not reach his eyes. He was done with her.
As Franny lay in bed that night, she reflected on her life, on the fact that she had been in charge of almost nothing. She hadn’t been able to make her husband stay. She hadn’t been able to make herself pretty — hadn’t been able to keep Curtis safe.
She felt the boundaries of her body as she lay on the mattress: the aching in her neck, her dry eyeballs beneath their lids, the boiling soles of her feet, the robot stink of chemicals that seeped from her pores. Franny had been a passenger in her own life, unable to steer her life towards happiness. Having her hair done, her spices alphabetized and her wind chimes dusted had been her small attempts to beat back the sorrow and the chaos. Such meaningless bullshit. She should have worn comfortable shoes, should have screwed more men, should have let Curtis stay up past his bedtime. Jesus.
Franny didn’t know any of her neighbors any more, except for Irene and Oscar who had lived next door forever. Everyone else had gone to graveyards or Florida. Irene’s husband Oscar, so vibrant back in the seventies with his loud laugh, his pipe and full head of shiny black hair, sat next door on his porch now, slowly turning to stone. Franny felt all hollowed out when she looked at his wrecked face, at the bald spots where his eyebrows should have been. Oscar had been with her when they pulled Curtis out of the Croton River, and now Oscar would be another dead name in her address book.
Oscar and Irene’s little boy, Bruce, had been the same age as Curtis, but different as the sun and moon. Curtis was shy and quiet like his mother. He knew the names of birds, could tell the males from the females. Bruce, on the other hand, was a natural athlete. Even at just seven years old, where Curtis was shy and bookish, Bruce was boisterous and athletic. Bruce had a baseball glove and a bat. Curtis had binoculars. They spent so much time together that Bruce didn’t even knock on the front door when he came to get Curtis.
As she lay in bed, Franny knew that to die, she’d have to let go of her memories of Curtis. Remembering him had been such a private prayer, nurtured and fussed over by her, seemingly every second since he had drowned. But she felt she should loosen her grasp on him now. One more time, she thought, and ran through what she remembered of him.
On that morning so many years before, Curtis and Bruce had gone down to Black Rock before breakfast to slide stones across the river ice. Bruce hadn’t gone out on the ice, at seven displaying an athlete’s awareness of his body and its weight in the world. Curtis, more cerebral, was unaware of himself in that way. Later people were mad at Bruce, resentful that he had survived, but Franny wasn’t. Bruce hadn’t gone out on the ice and Curtis had. That was all. Franny nursed a distilled, pelvic-loneliness for Curtis that had no room for resentment.
Before Curtis went out with Bruce that winter morning, Franny had helped him on first with his tube socks and then slid Wonder Bread bags over each socked foot. “To keep your feet dry,” she told him, grinning up at him as she slipped his boots on over the bags and buckled them. She kissed his warm, biscuit-y cheek before he ran down to the river.
When Curtis fell through the ice, Bruce had run up the hill to his father Oscar for help. He found Oscar drinking coffee, hung over from bridge the night before at Franny’s where she had served deviled eggs and martinis. Oscar called the Croton police and then ran over to Franny’s, still in his robe and slippers. He knocked on the door and shouted, “It’s Curtis!” to her so loudly that she ran after him without getting her coat. Oscar went in front and little Bruce held Franny’s hand, pulling at her to move faster. By the time they slid down the rocky slope and got to the river’s edge, every inch of her was trembling with cold and dawning awareness.
Black Rock was peaceful. The steep incline on either side of the river and the dark boulders like enormous pillows made it seem cozy, snug. She could hear Bruce and Oscar’s breathing. Franny could see the Croton Dam looming a half mile upstream to her left, and Quaker Bridge, downstream just a hundred feet or so. No cars were crossing the bridge that Saturday morning. It was perfectly still, except for the water rushing beneath the thin crust of ice.
Franny watched Bruce’s arm and finger point at a hole in the ice. She leaned and squinted into the middle of the river, then noticed the small red marks on the back of Bruce’s neck where the barber’s clippers must have recently nipped him. She wondered if he had Wonder Bread bags on his feet. She added up the hole in the ice and Bruce’s pointing arm and felt something beating its wings toward her, which she submerged. She’d piece it together soon, later.
Franny listened to the ice sing like far away whales — looked up at the pine trees, bent over the river like old men with beards of snow. She listened again to the water beneath the ice, and let the seconds stretch into the time before she understood. Her breath was short; she could feel her heart racing like a fly caught behind a screen. Her body knew, but not her mind.
She could hear the river, but not the police car as it skidded in the gravel above, nor the men crashing down the slope, or the pebbles sliding in front of them as they rushed to the foot of the bridge. She watched them get on their knees and bend their red faces back over their shoulders, baring their teeth in panic, but she did not hear what they shouted. She was aware instead of the sound of one crow irritating another crow in a branch way high above her. Franny looked up.
She watched Bruce move sideways away from the river and hide behind the thick trunk of an old Maple tree. He hugged it with mittenless hands and rested his forehead against the trunk a moment before peeking around at the police working at the foot of Quaker Bridge. He had to look. Franny understood.
She watched a policeman crawl out on the ice beneath the bridge. His pale blond hair was shaved so close that it revealed a pink, pig-like scalp. She saw that his cheeks were blotchy and his brows slanted down toward his nose in a way that made her see the terror behind his authority. Franny watched him chop his right arm up and down, hammering at the ice with a big flashlight. She saw that the ice cracked under his blows because the sleeve of his blue uniform was blackened by river water. He screamed to the people behind him without turning, focused completely on the hole in the ice in front of him, and another policeman crawled out and held the first man’s boots to keep him from falling through into the cold rush of the Croton River.
Franny and Oscar stood up-river by Curtis’ hole. She could smell Oscar next to her, the booze from last night, his unwashed armpits. She could smell the sweet apple-wood smoke from his pipe still clinging to his hair. He turned to her and said, “Franny? Franny?” She was crying but the muscles in her face weren’t moving. She held her fear close and got down, crawling onto the ice toward the foot of the bridge. “Franny? Franny?” Oscar shouted.
The night before, Curtis had asked to stay up with the adults who were playing bridge and drinking martinis. It had been late and she had said, “No,” and given him a deviled egg to eat on his way to bed. He wore his feet-y pajamas, the ones with the red cardinals on them, and she remembered the sound of his covered feet scuffling along the hall to his bedroom. She remembered the sound of his door clicking shut and the creak and sigh of his bunk bed under him. She should have let him stay up.
She stopped crawling and watched them pull her little boy’s blond head, stiff and unbending, up out of the hole they had made. Then they pulled his shoulders up and through. Even from a hundred feet away she could see the chapped knuckles of the officer’s hands. How was that possible? Although she sat on the ice where Oscar had crawled out to her, she could also feel the tight despair in the pale policeman’s chest, was simultaneously behind the maple tree with Bruce and up in that branch with the crows. Franny saw Curtis’ boots slip up out of the water, slippery and dripping like an otter being born. She wondered if his feet were dry inside his Wonder Bread bags.
Oscar helped her off the ice, and she moved toward Curtis. Someone put a coat over her shoulders. Hands tried to steer her away, but she made it to where someone was pinching Curtis’s nose and breathing into his mouth. She saw that Curtis’ eyes were open. How cold the Croton River water must have been against his open eyes. “Close your eyes,” she whispered to him. People looked at her. “Close your eyes!” she said more loudly. Other hands turned her and pushed her up the hill and away, across the street into her house. “Close your eyes,” she said again as she allowed herself to be forced into her own home.
Franny held his funeral service at the Unitarian Fellowship. It was packed with little boys in dark, hand-me-down suits and clip-on ties. She could smell incense burning. His teacher, Mrs. Gloger was there and told Franny, “Curtis was a very good boy.” She handed Franny a drawing, “This was in his desk,” but Franny couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be. She sat in the pew while someone played the guitar and sang, staring at the drawing, a mess of orange and red squiggles, like tangled yarn. He had written “Curtis B.” in the bottom right-hand corner in brown Crayon. She closed her eyes and listened to the music, holding her deep pool of grief softly, like a sleeping child.
After the service they went to Dale Cemetery in a line of cars up Route 129. She rode with Oscar, Irene and Bruce, who made her sit in the front seat. Irene told her, “You look beautiful,” but Franny, who had used a Magic Marker to cover a scuff on her shoe that morning, knew the truth.
Franny leaned over the hole they had dug for him and looked in. He wouldn’t have liked her hovering like this. The grave felt chilly to her, but she didn’t say so. Not talking calmed her, made her feel in control, her unspoken words wrapped around her like a blanket. They lowered his casket in and Franny closed her eyes and leaned forward, taking a deep breath, trying to smell her little boy in the cold air before the dirt filled up the hole. The back of his neck when he was just awake smelled like sugar, but she couldn’t smell it now. Other hands pulled her back.
Friends and neighbors came to the house on Quaker Bridge Road afterwards. Someone brought bright green Jell-o in the shape of a bundt cake. There was a meatloaf, too, and a pitcher of Bloody Mary’s. Franny tried to make a pot of coffee, but no one would let her do anything. They shushed her onto the couch where she ran her fingers back and forth over the velvet nap of the cushions. Bruce stood across the room from her. Faceless bodies dressed in dark clothes crossed between them. Bruce and Franny stared across the room at each other, like two little ghosts.
When the sun started to fade after the funeral, Franny went to her bedroom, moved the guests’ coats to one side and lay down. She woke up in the dark, still in her black dress, terribly thirsty. The house was empty.
The neighbor ladies had neatly stacked leftovers in the refrigerator. The bird books from the library had been stacked too. Curtis loved birds. During his first Pee Wee League softball game, he missed an easy catch because he was always looking in the sky. Franny had been so angry at him for that, for being so like her, so destined for isolation. She was angry at herself for not being able to teach him how to thrive. She put the library books on the chair by the front door. She’d return them tomorrow.
There was unopened mail on the formica counter. Franny spread it out and opened a manila envelope full of Curtis’s school pictures. She could see that, on picture day, someone had over-brushed his thick blond hair. It was full of static and Curtis was smiling the smile he used with people he didn’t know. Franny found the drawing from Mrs. Gloger and slid it, along with the school pictures, back into the envelope, which went into the bottom of the mitten drawer.
Franny wondered if Curtis’ classmates would remember him. Every morning she heard the school buses cross Quaker Bridge. Did the kids tell each other the story of Curtis drowning? It was the kind of wonderful/horrible story that she assumed children told one another over and over again.
A few weeks after Curtis died, Franny asked Oscar and Irene to take her to Teatown Lake a few miles away. She had skated there every winter since she was a kid. She could feel everyone was watching her – Irene and Oscar and the kids from town who had gathered to play ice hockey. They all knew how Curtis had died, and Franny was aware that there was something obscene about her being on the ice now, but she felt compelled.
Irene and Oscar each took one of her arms and skated with her from one end of the lake to the other without saying a word. What she wanted to do was lie down in the middle of the lake, shade her eyes and look through the black ice onto Curtis’s eyes. She wanted to look down to him, and have him look back, like an echo. When Franny finally settled on how to remember Curtis, she pictured him locked under thick, clear ice looking up, his fingers splayed wide open, smiling, his hair floating around his face like clouds. Eventually she stopped trying to forget him.
Franny watched over the years as Bruce failed to fully right himself. She saw him waiting at the bus stop alone. He did not look up at passing cars, kept his eyes on his shoes, his back to the river, his unwashed hair in his eyes. He quit the soccer team in middle school, and took up long-distance running. He got vicious acne.
Franny said hello to him at the bus stop when she went out to get the paper in the morning. She asked Irene how he was doing, but she felt it was inappropriate to pay him too much attention. She didn’t want anyone thinking she was trying to replace Curtis. On Bruce’s eighth birthday, just months after the drowning, she went shopping at the local toy store and found wind chimes made up of painted metal cardinals that made the prettiest sound when she jangled them. It seemed like the perfect gift and she had them wrap it at the store in baseball wrapping paper. She was about to walk the package over to Irene’s when she was suddenly overwhelmed by how wrong it was. Bruce didn’t want bird wind chimes. Good God! What was she thinking? She unwrapped the box and hung the wind chimes on her porch, deciding it would be less confusing for everyone if she didn’t buy any more presents for Bruce. Leave it alone, she thought.
Franny spent holidays with Irene and Oscar and Bruce, and always made it a point to say something kind to Bruce. She wanted him to know that she was paying attention to him, but not too much attention. As unresponsive as Bruce was, he usually chose the seat next to Franny at the dining room table. The two never talked about Curtis or what had happened, but Franny felt they had reached an understanding.
When Bruce graduated from high school, he told her he’d be going to Stanford in the fall. Franny invited him to the Croton Diner for lunch. They sat in a booth across from each other, on maroon, vinyl banquets. Franny stared at him, her elbows on the table and her hands folded beneath her chin. His brown bangs were in his eyes. He had an almost-mustache and she noticed the freckle over his lip, and the faint acne scar near his nose.
“Tell me what happened,” she said finally. He didn’t look up. She smiled a little so as not scare him and tipped her head to the side. Bruce tore the edges of his paper napkin in tiny even rips.
“What happened when?” he asked, as the waitress brought Franny’s Chardonnay and Bruce’s Coke.
“You know,” Franny said. “What happened? You shouldn’t take this story to college with you. Leave it here with me.”
Bruce was unsure. “I told him not to go out,” he said, looking out the window at the parking lot, “If that’s what you mean. I told him the ice was too thin. I stood on the edge and he slid out onto the ice, little by little.” He paused, “Is this what you want to know? But I thought, he was pretty small, so maybe it would be ok, you know?” She shrugged. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to know. “Well, you saw where the hole was, pretty far out. I was kicking some pebbles loose from the ice at the edge and I heard the crack.” He paused and looked over at her. She smiled encouragingly.
“So, you know, I heard the crack … a long crack like it was going all the way to the other side. Seemed like it lasted a long time, minutes or something. You know.” He took the wrapper off his straw and balled it up, rolling it back and forth between his thumb and index finger. “The ice just sort of opened up,” like a yawn, she thought. She had imagined that, “and his boots fell in and he was still sort of standing there for a minute, you know? It was all very quiet.”
Franny waited, then asked, “Did he say anything?”
Bruce shook his head and stuck out his bottom lip. “No, his boots went in, he stood there and looked at me and then it was like the river ran with him, like, pulled him under the ice. You know?” Like a blanket, she thought, the river his bed, the ice his blanket. “He looked at me and I think I kind of reached out my hand a little, but he didn’t have time to reach back or anything. It was all like very slow and very fast, you know?”
Franny saw that Bruce was sweating. She said, “When there’s a sudden freeze, and the ice freezes completely clear on Teatown Lake,” she paused.
“Black ice,” Bruce said, “yeah, the kind you can see right through.”
“Yes,” said Franny, “I look for Curtis when there’s black ice on Teatown Lake.”
“That’s the part that I always hated, you know?” said Bruce, “the part where I picture he was still alive under the ice being pulled toward the bridge, and he couldn’t break back through. It’s the part I think about, you know?”
“Yes,” Franny said, “I know.” She sipped her Chardonnay and wiped the lipstick off the glass with her thumb. They stared in different directions. Franny reached across the table for his hand, felt his guitar callouses. “You did everything right,” she said.
Bruce came home from Stanford for a full summer after junior year and Irene told Franny that she found tiny, empty gin bottles hidden in the garage after he left – dozens of them. He got a degree in engineering and settled in California, which made him seem far away to Franny, unreachable.
The night before she looked through her address book, she had been invited to Oscar and Irene’s for a pre-Christmas dinner party. Bruce, in his fifties now, was in Croton visiting his parents. Franny couldn’t eat or drink or talk easily. Oscar’s hearing aids squealed through the entire.
“How are you feeling?” Bruce asked Franny from his seat next to her.
“Rotten,” she said in a whisper. “Living like this is crappy.” Even when she whispered it hurt and she put her hand on her throat.
Bruce smiled at her, and she noticed his gray hair and the lavender pouches beneath his eyes. She felt an urge to smell the nape of his neck. Not that she would, but the chemo made everything smell like cardboard anyway.
She looked over at Oscar who was trying to get a forkful of food up to his wide-open mouth, his tongue hanging out to help catch the food. She looked at Irene, drinking her martini and laughing loudly at something. “I still look for him,” she whispered to Bruce. “I got mad at him for watching birds.” She paused. “He was seven years old and I got mad at him. It doesn’t even make sense to me anymore.”
Bruce looked down at her and said. “I’ve kind of forgotten what he looked like.” The way he blinked his eyes so slowly made Franny assume he was drunk. She excused herself early and went home to bed.
It was the next morning that Franny looked through her address book and went to her appointment with Dr. Mendelowitz. When she got home from her doctor’s appointment that afternoon, she took the old manilla envelope out of the mitten drawer for the first time in years and looked inside at the crayon drawing and the school pictures. Then she wrote on the front “For Bruce” and left it out on the counter, sliding the mitten drawer shut with her hip. She got into bed early that night, ready, and had a prolonged coughing spasm as she lay looking at the ceiling in the fading like She spit into a tissue.
There was nothing more to hold her there. Still awake at 2 a.m., the sounds around her became indistinct. After all that, she had neglected to call Irene about the god-damned wind chimes. Oh well. She let that go with everything else, and felt herself floating away from herself, felt herself growing fainter in the darkness. She splayed her fingers out once, pushing back against something, reaching for a hand that wasn’t there. Then her entire body relaxed and she allowed herself to stop remembering the wind chimes and the river, allowed herself to forget all of the little lost boys who would never be found, let it all float beyond her reach. She should have done this a long time ago. Then Franny let herself be tugged under, and felt herself be pulled all the way away.
N. West Moss’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, McSweeney’s, Salon, Brevity, Hospital Drive, Lunch Ticket, The Blotter and elsewhere, including on Radio France International. She is a fellow at MacDowell, at VCCA in Virginia and at Cill Rialaig in Ireland.