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February 19, 2024

After Life 32

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Thirty-two: The Other Passengers

The sun was not up yet, not even considering climbing out of the darkness, not even for a cup of coffee and a few eggs quickly scrambled. The sun was not interested in the painful murmurs of two women in a tiny kitchen fortifying themselves for another miserable commute, one to Gilroy, one to Salinas. The sun kept a more sensible schedule, needing only a few minutes to go from twilight to morning.

Roj settled into the chair nearest the window. The younger woman was putting coffee into a French press, keeping an eye on the pot of water boiling on the stove. The older woman was stuffing a lunch into an insulated bag, a sandwich in a plastic storage bag, packets of mayonnaise, a salad in a storage container. They were quiet, and obviously not enthusiastic about their days ahead.

"Your jacket stinks," Marianne mentioned to her mother.

"That stink is the smell of the money I make to live here with you, so stop yapping about it. I don't have a choice. In Gilroy, garlic is King and Queen and the whole damn court. When summer comes around, I can hang it out on the balcony, but right now, it's too damp, and I'll end up with mildew as well as with garlic." Nevertheless, she picked the jacket off the back of her chair and carried it to her bedroom. On return to the kitchen, she stopped and looked at the face of the telephone. There was no indication of new voicemails.

"No, I didn't hear anything from Matt again last night. I know you want to ask."

"I called his land line four times yesterday. Nothing. No answer. I called his cell phone six times, left six messages. Nothing. He's not usually cut off, what the hell do you think has happened to him?" Virginia massaged her neck as she stood from packing the lunch into her carry-all.

"Mom, the last we heard from him was him going to North Dakota. That had to have wrecked him. Maybe he just doesn't want to -- isn't ready to talk."

"He's never been this quiet so long. I'm worried about him, Mari."

"I am, too. But I don't have any time off to go and check him out. Neither do you, so it's kind of a waiting game. He knows where we are, he knows we want to hear from him. Shit, he doesn't have to scrape and save to live in damn Modesto, he could be calling us, or coming to visit." She opened a cabinet and took out a small frying pan. "At least his boss isn't calling us with bad news, so he must be okay."

"That's true, I suppose. Why the hell does he have to live in the Central Valley instead of the Bay Area, anyway? Modesto might as well be on a different planet. Is it just that out there the rent isn't so damn high? Maybe we should move, too."

"How many eggs do you want, Mom? We have this conversation every morning. You really want to move to the Central Valley to find another job? Or go north to Redding or Eureka? Or south -- you've got cousins in Bakersfield."

"Two, scrambled, and don't dump any cream or cheese into it." She sat down at the little kitchen table, folding her arms on top of it. "Use another pan if you have to, I'll clean it." She slumped. "The money here is too good, and I'm too old to keep starting over. You're right, I shouldn't be bitching so much. We have jobs, and they keep us alive. We should be grateful."

But to whom are you grateful? Roj wondered, closely observing her would-have-been relatives. You're like my dad, grateful for the money, to the money. But am I right?

"Yeah, right," Marianne answered.

"And in spite of everything, I'd much rather be here with you for a while than with my blood-sucking cousins."

"One of these evenings, I'm going to bring home an arm-load of wine, and get you to tell me every blood-sucking story you can remember about them. I'm old enough now -- for all the dirt, and old enough not to blurt about it when we see them."

"Old enough not to blurt the dirt," her mother cackled. "That should be a traditional saying. Have to warn you, though, I'm not going to drink wine and tell stories if Harry is here."

"Harry is a done duck, don't worry about him."

Virginia raised her eyebrows and turned toward her daughter at the stove.

Marianne sighed. "Here's dirt for dirt. Last date we had, he wanted to go down to the parking lot by the river to 'watch the moon set.' That sounded cool, but once we were there, he got pretty handy and wanted me to -- uhh --"

"I assume it wasn't that he wanted you to loan him a tenner."

"No. But he grabbed me by the hair and started pulling my head down --"

"Lord, what an asshole. You don't have to tell me more."

"Wait, I do. I yanked away -- left him with some hair in his hand, and started the car, put it in gear, and tramped on the gas as hard as I could. Sprayed gravel all over the place and tore out of the parking lot. 'What are you doing?' he screamed. 'Why, I'm going to get a cop to pull us over and then I'm going to tell him about you pulling my hair out.' We were doing fifty on Main Street by that point. I ran a stop light -- don't worry, there wasn't anyone coming -- and started laying on the horn."

"What did he do?"

"The next street, I had to stop because of traffic, and he shouted, 'You're a crazy bitch!' and jumped out of the car. I rolled the window down and roared back, 'If you ever touch me again, I'm gonna cut your nose off, and then your ugly little ears, and then --' but he ran away so I couldn't tell him anything more."

Virginia rose from the table and left the room for a moment, then returned with a twenty-dollar bill in her hand. She held it out between her index and middle finger to Marianne. "Neither of us has to work tomorrow, so pick up some zinfandel for me. It'll be Dirt Night, and if we run out of trash talk, we can watch some nasty blow-em-up kind of movie."

"Deal, Mom."

There was silence until the eggs were plated. Virginia salted and peppered her eggs and drizzled ketchup over them. "I'm going to think about that all day and people will think I have some kind of mental problem because of me laughing."

"It does sound funnier than it seemed at the time. Now I kinda wish I'd have put the car up on the sidewalk and chased him -- but there were people walking there, so I couldn't really do that ..."

The women finished their breakfast. The empty dishes were rinsed and put in the tiny dishwasher. "Okay, Mom, have as good a day as you can in Garlicville. If I hear from Matt, I'll leave a message on your phone."

"Same to you, have fun selling insurance. If Harry calls you, make sure you're not being recorded for quality control assurances." They left the apartment, locked the door, went quickly down the outside stairs to the parking area, mounted their cars, and drove off, still in darkness.

Dang, I wish I could have been buds with Marianne. Sounds like she could have taught me a thing or two.

Roj poked nosily about the kitchen, looking at fixtures and opening cabinet doors. Just enough dishes and cookware for two, and maybe a visiting guest, but nothing enough for entertaining.

The living room was small, the same scale as the kitchen. A bookcase stood against one wall, but it wasn't full of books, just as the bookcase in the apartment she used to have hadn't been. But one thing was there that she didn't have after she'd moved to California -- a family photo album.

Pulling it from the shelf, she opened it. The first page was all in black and white, a girl in a white frilly dress, the girl missing a front tooth. A boy in a suit, his hair pasted to his scalp with hair spray? gel? except for a fuzzy tuft at the back. That's got to be Matt's dad, and the girl, Virginia.

The second page jumped right to wedding pictures, and Roj fancied she could recognize the children's features in the adult faces; bride and groom, bride and groom with family on either side, bride and groom with extended family and friends, in faded color photos, just a touch blurry, not like digital images.

Honeymoon pictures on a beach. Front porch pictures with glasses of lemonade, the couple saluting the camera, arms about each other's waists. A chubby naked baby on a blanket in a sunbeam, eyes like lasers, hair like a Brillo pad. Oh, Matt.

Then Matt in his mother's arms, toying with her necklace. Matt, on his father's shoulders, grasping the string of a balloon in one hand, hanging on to his father's wiry curly hair with the other. Marianne, in Virginia's lap, newborn, fingers wrapped around one of Matt's fingers.

Matt with his bicycle, Marianne on her trike, on the sidewalk in front of an apartment building. Photos chronicling the years, the family of four, baseball, picnics, dance classes, softball. Promotions, awards, milestones. Christmases and Easter baskets, birthday cakes and proms.

They had all those years together, but Matt and I only had a few months. They would have been my family, too. She closed the album, noting that her exploration had not touched the dust on the top. But what do I know about them? Almost nothing. She drifted through the apartment, noting a lush philodendron in a south window, some magazines on a side table, laundry hampers in bedroom closets. Marianne had been wearing makeup, Virginia had not. Marianne sold insurance, so she had to look good and appealing. "What does Virginia do for income?" She asked, knowing Desai would be near.

"She works in a garlic processing plant in Gilroy, which is known for its garlic industry."

"Not by me, it wasn't," Roj said. "I wasn't here long enough to explore all that California had to offer. Matt was supposed to be my tour guide. And I didn't know that his sister and mother lived together."

"Until recently, they did not. But Darren Trapester decided that he needed to have new adventures with new people, and left Virginia to fall back on Marianne's assistance." Desai seemed unconcerned.

"But that's awful!" she sputtered. "Matt didn't tell me about that!"

"Sometimes people grow older in strange ways. There was sadness, but Virginia's income has enabled Marianne to live in an apartment that is safer and larger, so good has come in spite of the breakage."

Roj moved through the short hallway, peeked in Marianne's room from the door. "I wanted to get to know her, and hoped we'd be chummy sisters-in-law. I had a recurring happy fantasy that some day, Matt and I and his whole family could meet my parents and brother, in North Dakota, right when the bad summer weather ends and before the bad winter weather begins. Warm enough for lemonade and barbecue, cool enough to enjoy sitting out under the maple tree in the yard, with a picnic table loaded with a feast."

She was less hesitant to enter Virginia's room. "This is her territory, you can tell. Her chair beside the end-table, with her book on it -- look, she was reading Amy Tan. She and I could have talked about Tan's books -- I read every one of them.

"Marianne doesn't have much decoration in her room, but Virginia has made this place her home. Aww, shoot. Right beside her bed, see this?"

The photo in the frame standing on the bedside table was only visible from the pillows of the twin bed. A photo of her son and his fiancée in San Francisco, Matt's arm holding Roj close, Roj's hair blowing crazily in the breeze, illuminated to flame by the sunlight. Roj's right hand was on Matt's chest, and each of their faces had joyous, almost triumphant smiles, as though the world belonged to them and it was perfect. Yes, their love had changed them into new people. Roj could hardly recognize herself in the image, and Matt looked like absolute glory. "She could have put that away when I died, but she didn't. She's got Matt's police academy picture up on the wall, but she's got us right here, to see when she wakes up.

"If I had eyes, I'd cry. She wanted to have a daughter-in-law as much as I wanted to have a mother-in-law." Roj turned to Desai. "Okay, enough is enough. I just need for Matt to hear my voice. If he sees me, he still won't recognize me, will he? Never mind, you don't know the future, so you can't answer."

The sun was rising as Roj watched the doctor and nurse visit Matt in his room, the eastern exposure revealing a gorgeous late autumn dawn. Matt sat on his bed, stiff and sullen. The nurse handed him a tiny plastic cup with a pill in it. "Here's your morning meds, please swallow that down."

Matt tossed the little cup back, swallowed, then opened his mouth so that she could see it was empty, see nothing but tongue and teeth. He said nothing, looked past them at the wall.

"Good job, Matt," said the doctor. "We'll talk to you a little later about some physical therapy for that hand." He and his nurse exited the room.

Matt pawed at his mouth, waited another two minutes, and then went into his bathroom, tossed the pill into the toilet and flushed it away. Roj positioned herself at his window, the sun at her back.

"So, Mr. Matt, what is it you think you'll be doing with the rest of your life?" she asked him, trying to sound like a professional health care creature.

He jumped a little, but made no answer; he spared half a glance in her direction, then sat down on his bed, his back to her.

He's the most beautifully obnoxious man in the universe, Roj thought fondly, loving his antagonism and stubbornness. "Because for sure you're never going to be a cop again."

His shoulders tensed again, but he didn't rise to the bait. He can't, because he knows it's true.

"You going to go to prison for vigilante justice? That was your statement when that creep came into your room downstairs with his gun. You said -- you shouted -- 'I'll kill every one of you bastards!' Just how many bastards are you going to kill, Matt?"

He began to fidget with the cast on his right hand.

"She must have been one nasty lady, to want you to go out and kill every bastard you could find for her revenge."

"Shut your face, damn you, you don't know anything about her."

"Oh, you do talk. How nice. You know, I don't know everything about her, but I do know a few things from your records here at Memorial. She was your fiancée when she died. But you'd been engaged for a while ... why didn't you marry her?"

"What? What the hell kind of question is that? We were going to get married as soon as we could."

Roj snorted. "Apparently not. Doesn't take much time to set up an appointment with a city clerk."

Lips pressed together in anger, Matt tensed more. After another minute of silence, he grated, "We wanted to do it right, in church, in her home town, with her father walking her down the aisle ... " He choked on the words.

"Her father? What, if anything, does her father have to do with marrying your woman?" Roj asked, in a way channeling the annoying Voices which had tormented her. "That's just an archaic way of assuring yourselves of expensive wedding gifts, so that you can return them for cash."

"You don't understand shit."

"And you're not interested in helping me understand jack shit, all hunched up on yourself and looking like you're going to beat my face in with your cast any second. You say the words "church," and "right," but all I see is anger and violence and bitterness. Next thing you know, you'll be telling me that she wasn't any of those things."

"She wasn't!" he shouted, clenching his left fist on the bed.

Roj let him fume for a bit. He still won't look at me, won't give me his face. But that's good -- less chance for him to turn and see there's really no body in the room. "You know, real love changes the people that love, makes them into something greater than they would have been alone. Could it have been real love if it changed you into this mess you've become, consumed with hatred and fury?"

He sagged, shook his head. "No, her love was good. I was a better man because of it. It was like -- I was a cop, a clean one, a fair one, and proud of it. But then she came along, and being a cop was only a tiny bit of what life was about, all the things we were going to do, the kids we were going to have ..."

"The in-laws, the birthday parties, the family get-togethers -- don't forget those things, most people don't look forward to that."

"No, but we did! We did."

"And now she's dead, and all her family with her."


Come on, Matt, the clock is ticking. Any minute someone is going to come check on you and ruin this. Figure it out, my heart.

"What was her last wish, Matt?"

"To get out of town," he whispered. "I was too damn smart to do it."

"Then maybe that should be your next order of business after you get out of this joint, hmm? Maybe go visit her grieving, not really dead family and tell them that you loved her and are not forgetting about her?"

"Never thought of that ... maybe I should."

"Maybe you should. I think her parents might even be glad to get to know the son they almost had, and happier still to know that you haven't up and forgotten her."

It was his turn to snort in disbelief. "And how would you know anything about her family?"

Roj loved him. Her soul reached out to him like a flower opening to the sunlight. "I know a lot of things. I know what her last words were to you."

"What?" he gasped.

"She said ... 'I love you, Matt."

He jumped to his feet, spinning toward the window, a wild grin splitting his face. "Roj!"

There was only the sunlight streaming in, dazzling a few dust motes in the air.

* * *

From the top floor of Memorial Hospital, Roj and Desai watched the sun rise into its low southern arc. "There's still a lot to learn, I think," Roj told the angel. "In spite of how painful the knowledge was to learn at times, I feel like ... right after I died, I felt freed, like I had had lead soles on big, clumsy shoes, and then they were gone. I could see more, feel more -- more joy, more sadness, more curiosity. Now, it's even more so. Shoot, Desai, I didn't even know there were really angels.

"I thought it all was black and white, good or bad, and that bad should be punished immediately and good should be rewarded with health and riches -- but I can see now that was childish. Garrison and Hennessey were involved in a monstrous crime, but after following them around ... I've ended up rooting for them to win out and get away from their stupidity and greed. Me tormenting them might have been my idea, but the ability to do so was apparently in the greater plan, so that they would eventually see a need to leave the evil behind." Watching the clouds split the sunrise into beams of light, Roj smiled. "Couldn't have done anything about the bad stuff if I hadn't been killed, either. Even that stinking hog Max was part of the plan, and you know, though I was so afraid of him, what I've learned makes me pity him -- I'll probably pray for that piece of shit."

"Perhaps call him by a different name?"

Roj pondered the question while clouds tumbled across the sky. "In time, I hope to refer to him as "That Reformed Piece of Shit."

"Fair enough." Desai shook his head.

"Matt and I were transformed by our love and hope together," she continued. "But we were swallowed up -- happily so, mind you -- by finding each other and experiencing such love. We let everything else take a back seat. Pretty much a back seat in someone else's bus. So when I died, all Matt could see was that empty seat beside him. Like Gerry's ghost-buddy Joao, mourning over his death from his wife's life. I'm hoping that what I said to Matt will help him to remember his family, and the family he was joining, get him to stop looking at the empty seat and see all the other people on the bus wondering where they're going, too."

"Your holy book has words in it that say, 'as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all, the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.' You have scattered much seed, Roj."

"And I know not how it will sprout, that's so true. I wonder if it was enough." She started. "Did you see that? Uhh, hear that?"

"No, what was it?"

"Like a whisper, like a chord, or Christmas lights through snowfall -- beautiful! Desai, it was like a kiss on the top of your head. Yep. I'm done here."

Desai shimmered in the light. "Staircase or escalator?"

"Well ... Dad built me a tree house in the yard, with a rope ladder ..."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-06-18
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
Ralph Bland
06:06:51 PM
Well, first of all, I hate to see Roj go but I'm glad she's found the place she needs to be. It is a good thing for her to find forgiveness for the world she has been forced to leave, and the wisdom she has gained from being in it and not of it is something to be thankful about. We do spend much of our lives bemoaning lost opportunities and missed chances, and it has been a nice ride watching Roj (as some form of Everyman) make some sense of the wild weird ride that is life. I enjoyed this adventure and think you should see about getting it into book form. since there are so many characters and scenarios to be grasped--it would be nice to have them all bundled together in book form as a reference folder or a scorecard to tell all the players. Thanks for the spiritual journey into a world I didn't know existed. My only problem is I hate to see it ending. Now, dearie, you have to take a small break and then write something else. (I really like a Piker issue with you and Bernie in it!)
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