I’ve thought a lot about what I’d say if I were the one leading Mrs. Hannecker’s memorial service today. It’s a fantasy, I know. I’m just a coworker. But memorizing lines is what I do, even if I don’t—yet—do it for a living. My only hope is they’ll invite those who cared about her to get up and share something. After all, this is Southern California. You never know when an agent or film executive will turn up in the audience, so I’ve been relearning a monologue about a dead lover that I performed in college. Only a couple lines had to be changed to make it work.
But there’s still so much more to say.
No one in the office knew Mrs. Hannecker was dying. There was that mysterious email that went out: “I’ve developed some food intolerances, so please forgive me for not taking part in office celebrations.” She’d always been slight, a little hunched, but before she stopped showing up to work, that pink maternalism that had made her so beloved and dependable had already started to fade. Her voice grew thin and scratchy, a pen with too little ink. People stopped going to her with their problems, stopped assuming she’d beat them to their assigned office chores, had to remember deadlines on their own.
She was one of the few people in my life who told me to follow my dreams and meant it, who assured me that I could be whoever I wanted, and if I wanted to be a professional actor, then I should go for it, it was never too late. After all, I had the looks. It’s too late for me was my invariable stock response. Since my now-wife, Delia, got pregnant shortly before we graduated from UCLA, followed soon after by two more kids, I chose the more practical path toward adulthood, advertising over an acting program. Even if I did go back to drama school, how would I, with my slightly bulging stomach and gobs of debt, keep up with the younger, better supported, better connected actors springing up everywhere from nowhere like they’re goddamn mushrooms?
Mrs. Hannecker would just give me that trademark sympathetic nod with one eye playfully pinched, her way of telling me there was always time and potential, and that I shouldn’t waste either, that I had so much of both. I’d wish then, perhaps ungenerously, that my wife Delia had a bit more of Mrs. Hannecker in her. If she did, maybe she would have let me aim higher rather than focus on the ground in front of me.
I’m part of the Weather Station’s ad team (which is really just me and one other guy). Even though we’re called the Weather Station, you’ll only find us online—there aren’t any actual stations. No research is done here, just a website that gets millions of hits but provides no real answers. We aggregate data from other sources with legitimate meteorologists—if there is such a thing. We stalk the National Weather Service and local stations, but the ones with the most accurate data inform the oil drilling and fracking companies. They’re the ones we default to if the forecasts are contradictory. The cousin of the Weather Station’s owner is a petroleum engineer, so we get first-hand access.
People come to our website because we’re good at playing up dire circumstances, constantly revise our emergency protocols (“Do you know what to do in case of a hurricane? It’s not what you think”; “Top-Ten list of essential survival items to always keep in your pantry. Get to the store now!”), frequently throw in sob stories about swept-away pets or destroyed family heirlooms. We’re the Harlequin version of the Weather Channel and good at the what-if scenarios. Or at least those in charge of content are. Even though she was the office manager, Mrs. Hannecker actually wrote a lot of it when the copywriters got blocked, missed a deadline, or fell short in their word counts. She said she wasn’t a writer but coming up with catastrophic possibilities—that she could do. She was a mother, after all, and mothers are used to imagining the worst.
It’s definitely true of Delia, who sits at home all day, thinking up ways for our kids to become injured or get abducted. Either that, or she’s developing arguments to have with their school about its mismanagement of funds and eco-unfriendly curriculum.
I’ve stopped telling her about my auditions, couldn’t stand the doorway inquiries, “Did you get it?”—each time hearing You’re wasting your time and mine in her tone.
Since Mrs. Hannecker’s death, the bitter days have picked up in frequency, like an overactive heartbeat. The only real acting I’ve been able to do has been in my marriage, and it’s an exhausting role to play, especially because I have to write all the lines.
A couple hours before the Memorial, I call up to Jesse to join me in the basement. I need to give the monologue at least one practice run with an audience, and my oldest son is the most amenable to sitting still.
“Come down here a minute.”
“I need a favor.”
“Can’t. I’m helping Mom.”
“I need Jesse for something.”
“Fine, just send him back in a couple minutes. It’s all hands on deck for the consignment sale.”
Jesse comes plodding down the stairs.
“I need you to tell me what you think.” Then, after a quick breathing exercise, I
go method, enter another being, another voice, another world—even though they are all also mine. By the end, I’m crying, a strategy I taught myself by remembering the pain of once having my balls rammed by a surfboard. It’s what I love so much about acting: how visceral it is.
“Yup. You’re going to do great.” His smile is so big, it makes me wonder if he’s humoring me. Do eight-year-olds already know how to humor?
Just to be sure, I set up the camera when he leaves, seeking an objective view. If I give it the okay, I’ll add it to my demo reel, which I’ve been secretly compiling for years. It consists of scenes that were recorded of me performing in college mixed with one-acts I’ve put on here in the basement. I keep editing and reorganizing the reel, tinkering with the fade-ins and background music. When I’m down here, Delia thinks I’m working on Weather Station stuff that I bring home from the office, and now that Mrs. Hannecker is gone, I may actually have to. The plain truth is we’re all going to have to focus more and work harder, especially Andrew. When the company was just a start up in his garage out in the Valley, it was like he was sweating the money away with all his misdirected effort. In debt to his few employees, who were overworked and threatening to leave, it wasn’t until Mrs. Hannecker came on board that the company really took off—though I doubt he’d ever admit that. And even though I interviewed with Andrew, I could tell it was her word that counted in hiring me.
After she stopped eating with us, Mrs. Hannecker still made our coffee, kept the office fridge stocked with sodas and bubbly water, the cabinets busting with energy bars and popcorn, always had a cake or gluten-free muffin arrangement at the ready when it was an employee’s special day. It would already be set up, without any indication of her presence—a fairy godmother who had evanesced before the celebration could begin. She was one of those few people you hear about but so rarely meet, someone who lived wholly for others.
You could tell by her desk. She sat in the alcove at the entryway of our tenth floor office space in the middle of a desk that encircled her, like a permanently parked UFO. Push-pinned into every discernible space of cubicle fabric were pictures of her three sons and poems that her husband had written. They’d been married thirty years, and she always said that she was just as in love with him now—if not more so—as she was when they first met and fell desperately in love. “It’s just so romantic, being married to a poet. To live in love means life takes the form of art. That’s what Mr. Hannecker always says.” Sometimes she’d play her sons’ music during the workday. It was melancholy, chord-heavy, a touch repetitive, not really my taste, but they were doing what they loved, and she was their biggest fan.
Damn, I was envious of them.
Now they’ve lost her.
Now we’ve all lost her.
It’s strange to show up at the office on a Saturday. From the parking lot, the building looks dark and airless, but we’re not going in. We’re here so we can walk over in solidarity—we, her other family.
Apparently Mr. Hannecker had been so distraught, nonfunctional without his wife, that Andrew ended up arranging the service. When he sent out the email asking where we thought would be a meaningful location, someone suggested the park where Mrs. Hannecker ate her lunch: yogurt, an apple, and a small bag of cashews or almonds every day. Friar’s food.
Once the trappings for the service had been finalized—time, place, décor—Andrew said Mr. Hannecker experienced a newfound burst of energy and planned out the program on his own, hiring an old friend who owned a billiard hall but had been a minister briefly in his youth to lead the ceremony. It hadn’t occurred to me before then that I could have offered my services.
“I wish she hadn’t kept it secret from us,” somebody says now, on our way over to the park.
“I heard it was an autoimmune disease.”
“That explains why she kept her distance from us at the end—didn’t want to catch anything.”
“I hope they open up the floor for us to speak. I wrote a little something about Mrs. Hannecker, and I think it’d be nice to share.”
These last words are spoken by Nina, a copyeditor who’s only been with the company for a couple years but had grown especially attached to Mrs. Hannecker, called her Mother Bear, but also would get after the rest of us when she thought we were taking advantage of her: “She’s got enough on her plate.”
“She loves being helpful.”
“I wish she’d stand up for herself once in a while.”
“You don’t get it,” I’d explain. “It’s just the kind of person she is.”
She’d roll her eyes in that enticing way of hers: “Mooches, all of you.”
Even though we arrive as an imposing brigade, we wouldn’t have been missed. I recognize the members of our building’s cleaning crew, the UPS delivery guy, the owner of the bodega down the street. We are standing in concentric circles around a podium decorated with decadent sprays of pastel lilies and roses, courtesy of Andrew. The afternoon weather is typical SoCal beautiful, but the smell of horseshit is in the air, courtesy of the horse-drawn buggy rides that go through this park. I wonder if Mrs. Hannecker ever took one, maybe back when she and Mr. Hannecker were courting—which is what people like them would have done, nothing so pedestrian as “going out,” nothing so romanceless and efficient as what Delia and I did: hooking up drunk and then just going with it. I can see Mrs. Hannecker in her youthful beauty and Mr. Hannecker no doubt doting upon her with sonnets and champagne.
Standing to my left is a slumping man who introduces himself as Mrs. Hannecker’s mail carrier. “She’d always leave some kind of treat in the mailbox for me: preserves, cookies. Such a kind and generous lady.” He sniffs, and a yellow leaf blows onto his chest, clinging briefly to the pocket of his blazer. I’m tempted to remove it for him then look away to find tears in so many eyes glinting under the sun. Already. The woman to my right introduces herself as Mrs. Hannecker’s business partner. When I give her a confused look, she explains, through snot-rattling sniffles, “We have, had, a house-cleaning business.”
“Mrs. Hannecker had another job?”
“I cleaned during the week, she took the weekend assignments.”
Was Mrs. Hannecker a workaholic? Wasn’t her job at the Weather Station enough? True, my salary barely covers our mortgage and all the expenses that come with kids, especially the organic food my wife feeds them, but I’m the sole earner and haven’t been working nearly as long as Mrs. Hannecker. Did her husband just write poetry all day? And what about her sons? Based on what she’d said about doing their laundry and preparing their meals, I’d assumed they were school-aged, but I see them now, standing behind a podium in the middle of the circle, and they appear to be at least in their twenties, more like they’re about to take a stage than attend their mother’s memorial service. The oldest, I think his name is Joey, is wearing a tank top with a Day of the Dead design on it. The next, Kit, wears a Grateful Dead t-shirt, and the third, Billy, a bright yellow polo with sleeves that hug his forearms tightly. I’m guessing he finds the shirt ironic, and irony at a memorial service makes me uncomfortable. Joey sports a new tattoo on his arm, a heart with the words “In Memoriam: Mother” inscribed within, and the skin around it flames out pinkly. Kit and Billy have thick eyeliner on, which seems like a risky move if they anticipate crying.
I run through my monologue in my head again, growing nervous, mouth dry. Will it be well-received? Move people? What if they think I’m pretentious, trying too hard? What if it ends up stopping the tears?
Someone places a thickly weighted stack of paper in my hands, and the erstwhile minister, Lorne O’Martin, walks up to the podium.
“Just this gathering of people is a testament to the kind of woman Mrs. E. Benjamin Hannecker was. The world has lost one of its great caretakers, one of its guardian angels.” Tissues are passed around, and I almost reach for one, but I’m distracted by the crickets chirping their mating songs like a million vibrating cymbals. It’s like the beautiful weather—dissonant.
Lorne O’Martin explains that Mrs. Hannecker often would request him to sing her favorite song, “Danny Boy,” so he felt it only fitting to sing it for her now, one last time. He rasps and holds a fingertip to his eye, as if it’s the tears’ fault he can’t reach the high notes. When he blares the final “me,” he holds it out with a triumphant flourish of his outstretched hand, and then there is silence. I wonder if we’re supposed to clap.
O’Martin clears his throat, lifts a Bible from the podium and, after rushing through a verse, announces, “Mr. E. Benjamin Hannecker, my lifelong friend, and the lifelong friend and lover of the woman we remember today, will now read some original poetry.”
I hardly recognize the man from the headshot Mrs. Hannecker kept on her desk. His look is that of a disheveled but effortlessly handsome man who spends his daytime hours on a different mental or spiritual plane than the rest of us. His clothing is all black, jeans and a turtleneck that hugs his aged but not insubstantial pecs.
“Thank you for coming out and showing us—my sons and myself—how much our Mandy meant to you and for giving us your support in this difficult, difficult time.” Mandy. I forgot that was her name. Everyone always called her Mrs. Hannecker. After a swallow, Mr. Hannecker continued, “We weren’t worthy of the love and attention she gave us, but she gave it selflessly and tirelessly, even until the moment of her death. She wouldn’t let us stay the night at the hospital and insisted we go eat, read, see a movie—‘do something,’ she kept saying. I couldn’t help but write, of course. I wrote a death cycle and would like to share it with you now. If you look in your program, you can follow along.”
He reads. He keeps reading. There are so many poems. Each of their titles is at least ten words in length, and he pauses meaningfully when he gets to the end of each one. Yes, his voice is resonant, and I guess the poems are good, but I can’t help but wonder if this is going on too long. Or am I just being impatient? He reads about the stench of death, the blankness of the hospital walls, their indifference. He describes in morbid imagery his own weariness, his lack of faith, the rumpled clothing he wore as he occupied the room of the near-dead.
I guess it’s supposed to be symbolic. About absence? But shouldn’t he at least mention Mrs. Hannecker? I wonder when he’s going to stop. I wonder if he’s eating into the time for my monologue.
My knees are starting to stiffen, so I bend them in a slow-motion bounce. When I scan the fellow guests, I notice several fidgeting and looking around too—at me, at each other, at the park, up to the sky.
The evening air is descending when Mr. Hannecker finally finishes and introduces his kids. “Mandy was so proud of our sons, Joey, Kit, and Billy, and so am I. They have devoted themselves to the artist’s life. Mandy would have wanted you to hear their music, and they want to pay tribute to her in the best and most sincere way they know how.”
From nowhere, the sons have produced vintage electric guitars, a keyboard the length of a man, microphones, and battery-powered amps. No wonder Mrs. Hannecker had two jobs. As if on cue, a single cloud casts them, and only them, in shadow. The songs they perform are of a quicker tempo than the ones Mrs. Hannecker played in the office, more punk rock than moody ballad. It sounds like their despair is of the angry sort. One of the songs seems to be about orphaned wolves.
Am I too begrudging? Judgmental? Maybe jealous. Still, just like their father’s, this performance is going on too long and just doesn’t fit.
I want to deliver my monologue. It’s for her.
Above us are migrating birds, flattened letter Ms shrinking further into the sky.
When they finally stop playing, the sons hang their heads in unison. I can see their black hair is dyed, their blond roots showing at the crowns of their heads.
The sight fills me with a shocking sadness—the blond hair was their mother’s. I look around for the traveling tissues, but I have to let the tears fall freely, and, when my nose begins to run, I resort to the inside of my sleeve. I can’t remember the last time I cried without having willed the tears. But I seem to be the only one crying now. The people around me are checking their phones, with minimal subtlety.
Lorne O’Martin returns to the podium. “The talent that Mrs. Hannecker fostered and that we witnessed today is what will allow her to remain forever with us. Please join us for continued remembrance and celebration and to continue to show our support for her family at Mr. Andrew Brick’s home for a light repast. Directions are printed on the back of your program. Go in peace and love.”
I look down at the program, blotted with tears, but I’m no longer crying, more filled with disappointment and not a little anger that my monologue isn’t happening. What a waste.
As we all drift back across the median to the office parking lot, I keep my eyes focused on the program as if I’ve so enjoyed the show that I want to relive it. The front page is tastefully simple: Mrs. Hannecker’s name and the dates of her life. She’d just turned 51. I’d assumed she was older. And we missed her birthday in the office.
Inside the program are two insert sheets with Mr. Hannecker’s poems and the lyrics of the boys’ songs. Apparently their band name is Blood Brothers. I turn the program over. Beneath the directions to Andrew’s house is a small photo of a much younger Mrs. Hannecker. She wears a veil draped over her swept-back hair and is holding a rose up against her cheek. I was right that she’d been beautiful, and it gets me crying all over again. I try to hang back so I don’t have to talk to anybody but stay close enough to hear what they’re saying.
“Wasn’t that lovely.”
“Such a talented family.”
“What a shame she won’t live to see her sons’ success.”
“I don’t know. I wish they’d let some of us talk about her.”
“I had things I wanted to say.”
“I’m sorry, but I thought it was God-awful. A travesty,” this more whispered.
“I know! It was like a showcase for the men in her life,” spoken even more quietly.
“They must have known it was coming longer than we did. Maybe they’ve had time to grieve.”
“He’s not even that good a poet.”
“You know she supported them all herself.”
I look back and see the sons packing up their musical equipment as Mr. Hannecker gives them an elegant bow. Their smiles are subdued. Then I accidently step on the heel of the person in front of me. It’s Nina, the copyeditor, and she’s hopping because her shoe has come off. I reach down to get it. “So sorry.” It’s a navy blue heal, not too high, but sexy.
“Thanks,” she says. “Mind if I lean on you? Don’t want to get my hose dirty.” She grabs my hand, and I hope she doesn’t notice that it is shaking a little. But she does. “I’m going to miss her too,” she says, then tilts her head back in the direction of the park. “Something tells me we’ll miss her more than they ever will.”
“Oh, they’ll miss her cooking and cleaning and paying for their toys and telling them they’re so great and brilliant.” With the last three words, Nina imitates the calming lilt of Mrs. Hannecker’s voice, and I feel the swelling of more tears in my throat but force them down. It’s like swallowing dice. “But they won’t miss her.”
Stuck in the line of cars slow-merging out of the parking lot, I deliver the monologue to myself with all the passion and grief I can muster, no need to think of my balls to summon the tears. My best one yet, but no camera, no audience. Then I see Nina in the car next to me. I let her pull in front, and when it’s time to take the turn to Andrew’s place, I veer right. I can’t go to the reception. I can’t go because when Nina was nodding her head back at Mrs. Hannecker’s family, she should have been nodding at me.
I had depended on her but never given her anything in return, never expected her to expect it. Along with everybody else, I had missed her goddamn birthday.
I don’t know where I’m going, just that I can’t continue the same way I always do. I sense the danger of driving with such tear-clouded sight, but there’s nowhere on the highway to pull over.
Then she’s there. Mrs. Hannecker. I swear it, hitchhiking at the end of an off-ramp. She’s wearing a too-big baseball cap, but it’s definitely her, and she’s waving at me. The guilt won’t let me keep going, so I swerve onto the next exit with the intent to circle back, but there’s only an off-ramp, no way back on. The entrance must be down a ways, around and back, up in the other direction. Somewhere. I’m in a part of town I don’t recognize. Even though I was born here and never left, there are still parts of LA I’ve had no reason to visit. I keep to my familiar routes. But this one isn’t familiar, and it’s dodgy too. My car is bumping over what look like old metal tracks grooved into the road, and all of the store signs are in a language I don’t speak.
What is Mrs. Hannecker doing here?
I’m starting to panic, can feel the beats of my heart and the sweat on the wheel.
I’m lost. Lost in a friendless world, and I’ve left Mrs. Hannecker behind.
The setting sun shines pinkly through the palm trees and smog, but it may as well be the full darkness of night, because nothing I’m seeing makes sense. This is the world of delusion.
I keep catching all the reds, so I stop and start, staring straight ahead, jarred by interrupted motion. The glow-blue compass on my rearview mirror tells me I’m going east, and relief comes with the knowledge, a deeper breath.
I need someone to tell me where I’m going, but I have no one to call. Delia takes care of the house, the dogs, the kids, the community, herself. But she doesn’t care about me, hasn’t in years.
It’s impossible, but there she is again. Mrs. Hannecker. I must have been wrong about the first one, because this is definitely her.
She’s standing with her hands on a stroller, her head tilted to check her watch then a flick of her head up—as if to catch me before I pass.
But I pass.
She was trying to tell me something, I know, but I’m not turning around this time. I can’t head back west. All there is there is the sea.
I have to go east on my own, east to the home I have built. I have to learn to depend on myself. Mrs. Hannecker kept giving, so we kept asking and receiving. Didn’t she know that since she helped us so well, all we could do was depend on it?
At home, Delia is emerging from our youngest’s bedroom. When she asks how the memorial was, I can feel the tears again, and Delia softens. She nods and comes in for a hug. I hold her tight, tighter than I’ve held her in a long while. “She was a special woman,” Delia says, standing back. “But maybe she gave too much of herself away.”
I feel depleted, but Delia looks shockingly vital. Somewhere along the way, I missed her resurgence over the past few years, finally freed from the burden of babies. I’d assumed that the things she’s been doing—the volunteering, awareness-raising, endless committeeing—was simply to fill the emptiness, but I was misguided. She’s been pursuing her interests and passions, has double-backed into that energetic world-buster I met and fell in love with in college.
There’s pink in her cheeks.
Maybe I’ve been unfair, blamed her for my own problems and sadness.
Maybe she has time for me now.
I aim my lips for the pinkest part of her cheek, and as I do, it feels as if the distance I have to cross is as wide as a canyon, and I’m not sure I’m ready to take the leap, but I breathe and brace myself and go, and once I hit the landing, I know that I have shifted our relationship for the better. An unscripted touch can change everything.
The peck makes Delia laugh, and her cheeks pinken even more. “Ava’s still up if you want to tuck her in. Jesse and Kyle are spending the night with friends.” She grasps my shoulder lightly. “Meet you in bed.”
The darkness of Ava’s room is punctured only by the eerie blue of her square nightlights. She’s already drifting, her eyelids closed into hints, but she smiles at me, senses my presence even in the coming of dreams, and after I bend to kiss her goodnight, I see in her sleeping face the face of my wife. It is the face of someone I love, someone I should never have stopped loving, someone who is here for me.
I remember that first hook-up in college, under the stage at a cast party. She’d been in the audience and said my performance moved her. I’ve watched that performance over and over again on the demo reel.
I could do it even better now.
Scrunched in the back of my desk drawer is an envelope addressed to a film executive. It has been there longer than my oldest child has been alive. Soon I will go up to my wife, but now, in goes my demo reel and, with it, my excuses.
Then I set up my camera and record the monologue I’d prepared for Mrs. Hannecker, just one more time. When it’s done, I place the thumb drive in a small box addressed to “Mr. E. Benjamin Hannecker and sons,” with the label, “For Mandy, whom none of you deserved.”
Sarah Schiff earned her PhD in American literature from Emory University but is now a fugitive from higher education. She writes fiction and teaches high school English in Atlanta. Her stories have appeared in J Journal, Monkeybicycle and Fiction Southeast, among others, and her nonfiction can be found in such journals as Arizona Quarterly, Modern Fiction Studies, and American Literature.