Everything is packed in the rented car and we are about to drive off when my mother sucks in her breath and says, “Your father!” She gets out of the car, runs into the house, and returns with the baroque-looking urn that was left out on the dining-room table like airplane tickets so she wouldn’t forget it.
“Thank God,” she says, strapping herself in, placing my father on her knees, and wrapping her fingers around the ornate canister. Now she is ready. It seems she has been ready for thirty years.
“Where did you get that thing?” I ask, backing down the drive. “The Home Shopping Network?” I am feeling petulant, and annoyed by the turban she is wearing for the occasion, despite the ninety-plus heat.
“What’s wrong with the Home Shopping Network?” she says.
We ride silently for half an hour, on our way to the desert, upon which Dad has willed his remains be flung. In my mind, “the desert” is any place arid enough to eliminate the possibility of his DNA regrouping in pond scum and returning through the food chain to the table where for years my mother served him TV dinners.
My mother’s idea of the desert is Palm Springs, where she has rented a room at the Evergreen Motel in preparation for the “ceremony” Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, it is now only one o’clock on Saturday, which means we’ll have some time to kill when we get there, which means she’ll want to shop some before my younger brother, Patrick, arrives.
“Did you ever call the McGowans?” I ask. “I don’t suppose they could come all the way out. How long has it been since you talked to them?”
My mother looks at me as if I were brain dead. “I have not spoken to Marion McGowan since she had an affair with that bisexual landscaper. She says I yelled at her when she ‘needed me.’ ”
Jack McGowan and my father were in the war together, and the McGowans have been friends with my parents since the forties — until, that is, my mother insisted on moving from St. Louis to a retirement community in sunny Anaheim. I step on the gas.
“Why are you speeding?” she asks.
“Does Jack even know Dad died?” I say.
She twists in her seat. “No. . . . I thought it was inappropriate to call him.”
“Inappropriate?” I say. “Why? Because he’s married to Marion? Why would she even have to come? I should have called. I’m calling him as soon as we get there.” I am furious at the thought of my father’s oldest friend, the man with whom for decades he drank vodka gimlets and talked about world affairs, not being present as my father spreads his final wings.
“If you even think about calling the McGowans, I will jump out of this car right now,” my mother says, pouting beneath her turban like a pissed-off Cleopatra.
“Oh, sure,” I say. “To be with Dad? Jesus, you won’t even drive all of a sudden.”
“I’m too old to drive.”
“But not too old to take belly-dancing lessons?” This jab apparently doesn’t merit a response. “I’m calling Jack when we get to Palm Springs. Dad would have wanted him to be there. And he would’ve at least wanted Jack to know he’d died, for Christ’s sake!”
I picture this small tirade puncturing my mother’s turban and lodging like shrapnel in her head. She has become an alien creature clutching my father. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him because his condition deteriorated so quickly she couldn’t find my new phone number in time. At the hospice, I took his cold hand and cried for hours. Now, clinging to his remains, my mother is coming between us once more, as she has for forty years.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I whisper.
“What?” my mother says.
“Nothing. Did you bring your medication? It’s the high desert, you know. The air is thinner there.”
Something has distracted her. I hope it is not what I have just whispered. “Yes,” she says, on the verge of tears. Now her turban is breaking my heart.
Highway 69 joins Highway 10, and from here on out it’s a straight shot to Palm Springs. My mother is tapping three fingers on the lid of the urn, a sure sign she’s thinking of a plan. The radio plays a Whitney Houston song, and my mother says, “Boy, that girl can sing.”
I can think of nothing to say to this. “I guess that’s why she’s rich,” I manage.
I follow a grocery semi for a few miles until my mother sighs audibly to signal that my driving is unacceptable, so I pass on the left doing seventy-five.
“Don’t speed,” she says. “We’ll all be dead.”
“Mom,” I say, “in order to pass people you have to go faster than them.”
“Do what you have to do. You always have, with no regard to my feelings.”
“Since when did you become a Jewish mother?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? I like Jewish people. They’re loyal to their families and good providers.”
We hit a pothole and Dad flies two inches off my mother’s lap. “Oh my God,” she says, holding the top on tight.
“Why didn’t you tape it shut?” I ask her dully.
“I didn’t have any tape. Anyway, I knew I was going to be holding it.”
That is the end of that conversation. It is the type of conversation I have had with my mother most of my life: no meal, just reservations. We say nothing more until we get to the motel, an unexceptional cinder-block building in a row of others just like it. There is nothing evergreen about the Evergreen except a palm frond on the sign. The motel itself is painted a faded recreational blue. Room 208 has two hard twin beds with brown plaid bedspreads, a landscape painting, a dresser, and a TV. Mom puts Dad on the dresser, and I lie down, too exhausted by the trip and the internal dialogue I’ve been having with myself to unpack. After enduring several minutes of my mother’s busy silence, I decide to call Jack McGowan.
Having long ago forgotten the number, I dial information while my mother looks on. “St. Louis,” I say, giving her a determined look. “The number for Jack McGowan . . . or Jack and Marion McGowan.” I rifle through my purse for a pen, but before I can write down the number my mother grabs the receiver and hangs it up.
“I’ll give you the number,” she says, “but don’t talk to Marion. Either ask to speak to Jack or leave a message — from you, not from me.”
I call the number she gives me, and it rings five times before a familiar voice says, “Hello?”
I am immediately choked up. “Jack?” I say. “It’s Liz Crennan, Raymond’s daughter.”
“Well, you must be joking,” Jack says happily. “You all have come to mind so much in recent days, I can’t tell you. How are you, darling?”
“I’m fine. . . . Well, no, I’m not fine. I just wanted to let you know that Dad passed away two weeks ago.”
I hear a deep sigh. “Oh, Liz, I wish I’d known he was sick.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Jack. There just wasn’t time. Once he found out he had pancreatic cancer, it was a matter of months. He talked about you when he was on the morphine drip. I know how much he loved you. I just wanted to tell you —” I let out one embarrassing sob — “that he had gone. Mom and I are going to sprinkle his ashes tomorrow.” Jack waits patiently for me to regain my composure. “How are you and Marion doing these days?” I ask.
His tone — a thin reed of pure kindness, like my father’s — hardens a bit. “I’ve got the Big C myself, but it looks to be controllable, they think. Marion died last October of a heart attack.”
I am stunned. I look at my mother and say, “I’m so sorry, Jack,” the baseball-sized lump in my throat growing.
“Yeah, me, too,” he says, almost to himself. “I wrote your folks a letter after she died, but I didn’t hear back.”
My mother is curled up on the bed nonchalantly.
“Well, the mail isn’t always dependable,” I say, “but Mom sends her best.”
We say goodbye and I hang up, then go to the sink to get a tissue and look at my red face in the mirror. It is my mother’s face, one of eternal anger and grief. On my way back to the bed, I glare at her.
“Don’t look at me,” she says. “I didn’t kill her. She always had a weak heart.”
“Did you get a letter from Jack about Marion’s death?” I ask, gripping a tissue.
“I got a letter, but I thought it was from Marion so I didn’t open it.”
I am wrestling with my rage and frustration when she says, almost as an afterthought, “I threw it away.”
Rather than going shopping, my mother takes a nap. I lie down, too. At six o’clock there is a tap on the door. I quietly open it and find Patrick in the doorway. I put a finger to my lips as a warning not to wake our mother. Then I kiss him, pull his suitcase inside, and push him back out.
“Let’s go to a bar,” Patrick says.
I leave a note saying that Patrick and I are off for a few hours to see a friend of mine — a ridiculous lie — and we wander into the first bar we find: The Sandtrap, one block down and across the street.
When we are seated in a booth and have our drinks, Patrick asks, “Where is this thing tomorrow? I only got a snippet of Mom’s message.”
“Are you ready? It’s at a country club on the golf course. We’re going to tell them we’re guests of the Ellisons’ and head out like we’re planning to play a few rounds.”
“So it’s official,” Patrick says. “Mom’s insane. That’s a desert? It’s going to be a little tough to get closure on this thing with Mom letting Dad’s remains flop off the back end of a golf cart.”
I laugh and beer flies through my nose. “Should be grand,” I say when I’ve recovered. Then I tell Patrick about Jack McGowan, and he struggles with the thought of Dad and Jack finally being separated for good.
“They used to have so much fun together,” Patrick says. “Remember how they would sneak away from parties and make Mom and Marion come looking for them?”
“Do you realize,” I say, “how funny Dad would think this is, us being in Palm Springs to sprinkle his ashes and drinking at a bar to get away from Mom?”
By ten o’clock, we are both a little drunk, and I am telling Patrick about the urn. “What does it look like?” he asks, choking back the laughter.
“Well, it’s sort of . . . French Provincial: a white, sturdy, plastic thing with gold overlay and a lid that looks like the top of the Kremlin.”
Patrick laughs so hard he falls sideways in the booth. To keep him going, I tell him about the belly-dancing lessons. “Remember? She decided she had to have them right about the time Dad was diagnosed. It was like some weird coping mechanism.”
“Poor Mom,” Patrick says. “She just can’t help who she is. She tries. . . . ”
“Let’s keep this in perspective,” I say. “Jack wrote Mom and Dad to tell them that Marion had died, and Mom threw away the letter.”
Patrick looks at me with sudden earnestness. “Let’s go get Dad,” he says. “Fuck it. Let’s take him out to the desert. He deserves better than a golf course.”
“You mean steal him from the motel room?”
“Yes,” Patrick says.
“Let’s do it,” I say.
We pay the bill and walk out.
“What if Mom’s up?” Patrick says as we approach the motel.
“Then we pass out like we should.”
We put our ears to the door of Room 208. The air conditioner and the television drown out all other noise, so I turn the doorknob gently and peek in. Our mother is under the covers, asleep, but with all the lights and the TV on; Dad is still on the dresser. I slip in, grab the urn with both hands, and slip back out.
“What now?” Patrick asks when we are sitting in his car.
“Take any highway out of here. It must be desert all around.”
We choose Highway 62, north to the Yucca Valley.
“This is criminal,” I say.
“I think Dad would have loved it.”
“OK, but we should leave half for Mom,” I say, feeling guilty.
“OK, we’ll leave half and just act like we don’t know anything.”
The highway is dark and empty, and the sky is brilliant with stars. I can see the outline of saguaro cactuses by the roadside. What are we doing? I think. I am holding my father in my lap as if he were a child torn between divorced parents. The desert whooshes by, no signs, no lights except for the glow of Palm Springs on the horizon behind us. We are in the middle of nowhere — flat scrub, miles of promise.
“There’s a dirt road,” Patrick says, slowing from eighty to thirty.
“Take it,” I say, and he does, dust flying.
Then Patrick begins a song my father used to sing: “Drink to me only with thine eyes / And I will pledge with mine.”
I join in:
Or leave a kiss but in the cup, And I’ll not look for wine. The thirst that from the soul doth rise, Doth ask a drink divine.
I open the sunroof and Patrick immediately understands and floors it. Every neuron in my head inflamed, I fumble, pull the lid off the urn, and scoop out a huge handful of ashes. A bit of my father spins around me in the wind. “We love you, Dad!” I scream, and then throw my hands up through the sunroof, letting the wind carry my father’s remains to their final home. “Jack loves you, too. Bye-bye, Dad.”
Patrick slows to a stop, and the dust overtakes us. “Now, that’s more like it,” he says, turning the car around. I put the top back on the urn, and Patrick slams the gearshift into first, flooring it back through my father’s ashes, which are now mingling with the red desert sands. “Mix it up, Dad,” Patrick says in a low voice, and then starts to cry. I put my arm around him, feeling for once that I have done something the way it was supposed to be done.
When we get back to the motel, my mother is talking to a security guard at the door to our room.
“Shit. Be cool,” I whisper to Patrick as we stagger out of the car. “We were just saying goodbye to him.”
Mom sees us and yells, “Where the hell have you been?”
Patrick yells back dumbly, “Just driving around, Mom. What’s going on?”
She meets us at the top of the stairs, grabs the urn from me, and stalks back into the room.
“We decided to get Dad and spend some time with him,” I say, “before . . . you know.”
“If everybody is all right,” the guard says, peeking into the room, “I’ll be leaving now.”
My mother has crawled into bed and turned out the lights.
“I’m sorry, Officer,” I say.
Pat and I stumble noisily into the dark room, get into one bed with all our clothes on, wrestle for the covers, and fall directly asleep.
The morning comes like a sledgehammer. My mother yanks open the blinds, letting in the sun like an interrogation lamp. While Patrick is still asleep and Mom is showering, I crawl out of bed and open the urn. So much of Dad is gone my heart does a full skip, and I stand there, full of self-hate and lame excuses. I want to confess right through the shower curtain to get it over with, but can’t find the courage.
“How much is left?” Patrick asks from the bed, and at that moment the shower stops. I try to slap the lid back on but drop it, and it rolls away. I am on my knees looking for it when I hear the bathroom door open. I launch myself into the bed and under the covers with Patrick. We hear Mom come out and move around the room. Then suddenly it is quiet. Patrick and I look directly at each other as if waiting for one clean shot to penetrate the sheets, killing us both.
“Get out of that bed,” Mom says, and Patrick and I climb out to see her holding up the urn, showing us the remains of the remains.
“We got a little carried away,” I say. “The idea was —”
Before I can finish my mother slaps me across the face, hard — a first. Patrick pulls us apart, and Mom raises her hand to him, too, but Patrick, who can catch flies in his fist, grabs her wrist. All bets are off.
“If you ever wondered,” I say to her, “why Dad couldn’t stand to be in the same room with you, it’s because you’re a fucking bitch. His time was up the minute he married you.”
“Just remember, missy, he married me, not you,” my mother hisses.
Patrick lets out a burst of nervous laughter, and I am confused by the bizarre dynamic: the jealousy, the laughter, the motel room. “What are you, mentally ill?” I say to Mom. “I don’t suppose it ever occurred to you that he preferred our company to yours because you were so mean to him all the time.”
“If I was mean to any of you it was because you never included me in anything,” Mom says, the blue towel around her head now sagging pathetically.
“That’s because you acted like you hated being with us. You bitched and moaned about everything: the steak was overdone; the baby got on your nerves. If you weren’t the center of attention, you made everyone around you miserable. Dad’s best friend’s wife dies, and he doesn’t even get to know, thanks to your pettiness. You made Dad look like some unfeeling bastard to his best friend. He didn’t even get to say goodbye to him.”
My mother is crying. The towel has fallen off her head, and her hair is hanging down in ringlets. “The fight I had with Marion McGowan,” she says, “had nothing to do with her gardener. I refused to talk to her because, after forty-five years of being my best friend, she felt the need to tell me that your father and her had sex behind the tiki hut at the Woodburys’ New Year’s party while I was six months pregnant with you, Patrick. . . . Kind of puts her in a different category, doesn’t it?”
There is stunned silence. My heart is pumping. Then Patrick announces, “I’m going downstairs to get a Coke.”
He leaves, and my mother retreats into the bathroom. I hear her crying and realize she has left the door open. “I’m sorry, Mom,” I say, looking in, and she nods — a gesture that’s as good as it gets.
We climb into the golf cart, me in my dark blue pants and top, Patrick in his brown interview suit, and Mom in her black fringe dress. Slumped in the back, Patrick has not said a word since the morning. I drive. My mother looks around to get her bearings, and then tells me to go left. I step on the accelerator.
“No, this way,” she says, pointing right, and I make a U-turn on a putting green as if we are being chased. After a while, she sees a tall stand of Italian cypress trees and says, “Go there.” I reach them and stop the cart. We are not exactly inconspicuous getting out of a golf cart all dressed up and carrying an urn. We head toward a wall of trees, and I can’t wait to disappear behind them.
My mother squeezes through the greenery, and Patrick and I follow. We come upon what looks like the back of a three-story apartment building.
“That’s where your father and I spent our honeymoon,” she says, pointing to a third-floor balcony flanked by a tall yucca plant and a hanging Chinese fern. “Harry and Inez Tedlock gave us two weeks in their condo as a wedding present. Do you remember them?”
“I remember Mrs. Tedlock,” Patrick says, “because she always wore those pedal pushers with the rubber thongs.”
“That’s right,” my mother says softly. “Up there is where your father toasted us. He poured champagne onto the grass here to christen our marriage,” she says, touching a bit of grass with the toe of her shoe.
“Goodbye, Raymond,” she says calmly, whatever tears she had saved for this occasion stolen by our earlier argument. Then she tips the urn slowly and lets the rest of my father drift over the grass where he poured champagne forty-seven years ago.
I put my arm around my mother, who takes my free hand for a few seconds, then lets it drop, embarrassed. Patrick parts the cypress branches, making a gate through which my mother and I walk to the open space of the fairway.