THE BEAUTY IN BEREAVEMENT
By Anders M. Svenning
Judy Tremont stroked her dying husband’s hair. Augustus had been sick for nearing five years and now the end was near. His gray hair, combed by Judy’s long, manicured fingernails which were feathery and light, had the ambience of a man wishing to depart his shell.
Days and nights, Augustus while semi-unconscious tossed in a rapture that could only be the dance of a dying man; for, as Judy Tremont watched her husband lingering on the cusp of death, she heard the whispering of the vast plane which claimed the departed, and she feared it and loathed it. She thought if Augustus knew how close he was to death, which was to her so near that it sent shivers up her spine and put goosebumps on her skin. She thought not; no, he did not know, this poor man, this collection of flesh, how close he was to the everlasting.
She stoked his hair and cooed him. He turned over by the will of a weightless spirit, his eyes open and moist, and told her in a voice frail and final that he loved her. Augustus Tremont died, his eyes closed, and his breath let out, moist and thick onto Judy’s face. Judy could hear the tea kettle singing. She was making tea for herself and would try to have Augustus drink a little. But, he was gone; the tea kettle whistled and she went downstairs, leaving her departed husband on his deathbed, went into the kitchen, and poured herself a cup of chamomile. The sweet chamomile filled her sinuses and pores. She would have to call someone—the hospital, the morgue. But, that could wait. Now, she wanted to drink chamomile and sit and think for a while before she went upstairs and stoked Augustus’s hair some more, cried, and remembered Halifax and St. Augustine.
Those were her brightest and most vivid memories of Augustus, and they were the memories by which she wished to remember him. Not in this state of sickness.
The linoleum floor was cold under her feet and the floral wallpaper—red roses and eucalyptus—was ambient and serene. Outside, snow was falling, white and pleasant. She found herself finishing her cup of chamomile, set the cup in the sink to be washed, and went upstairs to Augustus’s side, the hardwood flooring creaking, the house settling, and then she sat on the edge of the bed and sang:
“The road is open, for the men
who walk alone, but for a time
with them are the songs of tragedienne.”
The blood had run from Augustus’s face and his face was pale and peaceful. Her song went unheard. She could not even hear the words; it was as if her voice were a ways away.
She lay down in bed and went to sleep. A vague presence then filled her senses. She knew she was asleep, but she could distinguish a person in the room. The person walked from the doorway to Augustus’s side and it seemed—no, it felt—as if the man took something from Augustus’s front pajama pocket and deposited it in the man’s own. The sallow apparition continued out of the room, descended the staircase, went into the kitchen, and by some form of sentience Judy knew he had a cup of chamomile and disappeared, vanished into the ethereal substance from which he came.
Judy’s eyes opened and it was night. The snow continued to fall and was accumulating on the window sill. Before long she closed her eyes and fell into a sound sleep.
She studied the inside of her closed eyelids. While sleeping, she became conscious and felt Augustus’s body warm beside hers. He was lying on his back. Dreaming but aware, she thought of the sallow man, Augustus, and the morning, and she felt Augustus’s body become light and cool, and then felt it rise up and exit through the window; she thought the room smelled of firewood. She awoke to the light of day, turned over, and noticed that Augustus’s body was still there. She would have to make a phone call.
Downstairs, the chamomile tasted good, the room spacious.
Judy Tremont made two phone calls that morning, the first to her friend Betty Silverman and the second to Bethesda Hospital North. She sat in the kitchen waiting for her friend to arrive and though the lingering presence she had felt the night before was still in her memory, she knew it was only a thought, a hallucination. What more could it be? An angel? By God, did she believe in the supernatural? She thought she better start believing if she wanted to see her beloved again and she poured another cup of chamomile. This was her third cup this morning. It was nearing ten A.M.
The doorbell rang, Judy went to the front door, and opened it. Betty Silverman stood there with a bouquet of roses in her hand and her pocketbook on her shoulder. Snow was falling and clung to her shoulders and hair.
“Come in,” said Judy.
“Bless you, Judy, bless you. If this isn’t a day for blessings, I don’t know what is.”
She poured a cup of tea for her lifelong friend and contemplated telling her of the dreams she had had. She somehow felt compelled to keep it a secret, as if those types of dreams were meant for the dreamer and the dreamer alone, but she knew she would tell Betty because she was a friend and a good friend at that.
“It happened yesterday evening,” said Judy.
“A tragedy, but life is the obstacle, not death.”
Judy wished she agreed. It seemed somehow selfish of her to think that she was robbed of Augustus, that he deserved more time on Earth, but who was she? A woman, simple, plain, and a widow.
“You have the best tea, Judy, I assure you. The best tea.”
Judy got her tea from the same apothecary her whole life. A small place downtown that was an emporium of herbs and holistic, natural medicine, which for the life of her Judy had no idea how to administer. It was captivating—the jars of herbs like sarsaparilla, dried rose buds, and valerian root. But, she stuck with her chamomile not just because it tasted good, but because it was the only herb she knew anything about in the whole store. Walking into Mary’s Apothecary, one was taken by the subtle scents of herbs, which to Judy seemed a sort of mystical occurrence, the olfactory particles and motes of light absorbed in the furtive ambience, the collected botanics.
Judy took a sip of her chamomile, which was still hot. A sense of recalcitrance went through her. She had invited Betty, but something was far too ordinary about the scenario, as if this Sunday morning were a day straight out of a cache of normality. It was far from normal. Augustus was dead and there was nothing she could do about it.
Betty Silverman was saying something, but Judy did not hear her and spoke sharp and loud so that Betty would cease her attempts and provocations of closure and philosophy, and said, “I had a dream.”
“A dream?” said Betty Silverman. “A good dream or a bad dream?”
Judy said, “I don’t know, but a dream.”
“Well? Do tell.”
Judy looked into her teacup and saw filaments of chamomile floating in the yellow liquid. “I was lying in bed next to Augustus and it felt as though somebody came into the room and took something out of his pocket, went downstairs, had a cup of tea, and then was gone. I felt Augustus’s body rise and exit the bedroom window and that was it.”
“Dear God. You poor thing.”
“It was homely and nice and I didn’t feel afraid. I woke up, had a cup of tea, and called you. And then I called Bethesda Hospital North.”
“Dear God. You poor thing.”
“And then you arrived in what seemed sixty seconds later.”
“Dear God.” Betty Silverman gaped at Judy and Judy could tell she was trying to think of something to say but nothing would come up.
Judy finished her chamomile, got up from the kitchen table, and set the cup in the sink.
“I’d say it’s a miracle, an angel. He’s in heaven. He must be.”
“He was a good man.”
“You poor thing.”
Judy felt patronized. Perhaps a lifetime of being alone and sleeping with men half your age, a tendency of Betty Silverman, came with its egotism. Judy Tremont did not judge her friend—she never had—but something in the way she said it, “You poor thing,” made Judy’s heart skip, as if the departed were trying to communicate. Maybe it was a good thing to have Betty here, she thought. She keeps me company until Bethesda Hospital North gets here and then she will leave and I will take a bath, a cool bath to cleanse myself. I will go for a walk in the evening through the snow and feel Augustus beside me as if we were in our twenties again, and then I’ll come home, have tea, and relax, and then I’ll go to sleep and imagine Augustus was there with me.
The door bell rang.
“It must be Bethesda Hospital North,” Judy said, and it was.
“Where is the corpse?” asked a young man in blue scrubs.
“Augustus is upstairs in his bed,” said Judy, and she noted the sarcasm. It would take an oracular someone to get through to the youth of this age, she thought, and led them up the stairs, which creaked and groaned. Judy opened the white wooden door and she saw Augustus, peaceful in bed where she had left him. “There he is,” she said. “Be careful with him.”
“We will, miss,” said the other of the two. “You don’t have to stay here and watch. We’ll be quick and we won’t touch anything.” The bigger of the two men opened up the stretcher and said, “One, two,” and on three they picked up Augustus, whose head lolled to the side and Judy thought he looked heavy, old, and quite lifeless. His sumptuous head was leaving this house for the last time and she would never stroke his hair again in the same way, in the way she had stoked it twelve hours ago, when he said his final words to her, subtle, airy, and warm. The two men heaved Augustus Tremont down the stairs. Judy watched the ambulance drive away through the snow. She went back into the kitchen to find Betty Silverman waiting at the kitchen table. The cups had been washed and put away and Betty seemed eager to speak but said nothing. Judy sensed Betty’s trying to use her seeming and innate ableness to enliven the moment as if it were one of her beaus but Betty did not say anything and nodded.
“If you are so inclined,” Judy said, “would you like to go for a walk?”
“It’s snowing,” Betty said, “but sure. I think a walk would be good about now.”
Judy dressed according to the weather—a heavy coat, red scarf, and earmuffs Augustus had bought her for her birthday years ago—and they went outside into what was becoming a clear afternoon. I’m going to need to reorder my life, Judy thought, thinking Augustus was her center and that her life was for him. Restart with an ubiquitous happiness that no death can collapse. The wind blew the snowfall into a frenzy and it was too cold to go for a walk, but what else was there to do? The house was empty, quiet, as if disorder had been vaporized and an uncanny lightness took its place.
That was what death was, Judy reflected. A transposition of order and disorder, the Universe taking responsibility for its own actions, its own virile phenomenon. Virile, under her feet, the snow crunched, crisp, and Judy thought, God, how unearthly.
The only son of Judy Tremont lived in Chicago, Illinois. He received a call from work at four in the afternoon. It was the third phone call Judy Tremont made that day. “I’ll be down tomorrow,” Franklin Tremont said. “I’ll catch the morning flight.” He had not visited his home state of New York for over ten years and had not kept in close contact with his parents. He called only on birthdays and Christmas, but he loved his parents very much to the extent that any son would and they received his calls with open hearts and they were on good terms ever since he moved to the Windy City. Two wives and two kids later, Franklin Tremont was just starting to realize what his first and immediate family meant to him. It was too late. Too late to get to know his father, Augustus Tremont, on a more intimate level. The first reaction he had upon hearing of his father’s death was guilt and remorse. He never believed in God. God was like a breeze that tousled his hair and went on to greater things, Franklin thought, and that was not to say he was not philosophical or thoughtful on the subject. Eighteen years of Sundays left a pretty real taste in his mouth regarding the Holy Trinity, the trifecta that was going to deliver his soul to Heaven and had delivered his father’s not twenty-four hours ago.
Now, he drank wine in the evenings when he got home from work and over dinner prepared for him and his sons by his wife, Trish, but it did not signify the blood of Christ and the bread he ate was not His body, and when he closed his eyes at night thinking of tomorrow’s coffee, breakfast, Trish and his two sons, one five years old, the other six, he fell into sleep so deep it was primordial.
Everlasting life was not a hopeful notion to Franklin as it was to many Catholics throughout the world, it was fact. Like a drop in a bucket, life and willpower oscillated out like ripples and became one with the greater entity that was the Universe. He did not converse on topics such as religion. A modest man, Franklin Tremont, was quiet and kept to himself and as he saw it power was in silence. An idea gained momentum and substantiality that way. It was physics and he knew he had the right idea. Iconoclast images from youth radiated through him, Father taking him fishing along the Hudson River, Father showing him how to throw a baseball, experiences idiosyncratic and youthful.
Now, a definite tear separated him and his father. Not just one, Franklin thought, but two. One: the scape between the living and the departed. And two: five hundred miles between Chicago, Illinois and upstate New York.
Boarding the 757, Delta flight 3019B, he was breaching the easier and more immediate of the two fissures. In about two hours, he would land in Laguardia Airport, rent a car, and drive north three hours to arrive in the small town of Carmel, New York.
Carmel reabsorbed him upon his arrival; it rekindled a lost childhood that was once so real to Franklin Tremont and it redefined him. The brisk air of Carmel was not like Chicago’s. Here, you breathed and Carmel breathed back. It was a jovial reciprocity that tended toward the notion Franklin was having in recent months—take the kids out of Chicago. It was realistic, finding a job in the City, commuting the three hours from Carmel to New York and being closer to his parents; now, just one parent, his mother, who when she called seemed laconic and at the same time apprehensive.
Franklin Tremont pulled up to the familiar house, the house in which he grew up, and turned off the rental. He walked to the front door. His breath was visible. He breathed out fumes of warmth, steam. He knocked on the mahogany door. Judy Tremont opened it and did not smile. She did not waver nor did she look inviting. She looked sick.
Judy thought her son, thirty-five years old, looked in his heavy coat with the collar turned up ostentatious. Yes, she reflected, he looks like he’s from Chicago; a city boy we seem to have raised.
Judy moved to the side and said, “Come in out of the cold. It’s freezing and you’re letting the heat out.”
Franklin Tremont moved from the outdoors to the warmth of his childhood home. He took off his coat and hung it on the coat hanger.
“Glad to see you got here in one piece. How was the flight?”
“It was swell, Ma, swell.”
“Would you like some tea?”
“How long will you be staying?”
“I’ll be leaving tomorrow afternoon.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Cold and brittle.”
“It’s good to be home,” Franklin said. “The circumstances could be a little better.”
“Come into the kitchen, Frank. Welcome home.” Judy sat at the kitchen table. She had a cup of chamomile. “Augustus is gone,” she said. “But, it was a long time coming. That was the worst of my problems, seeing him in that state. Now, all I have to worry about is my osteoporosis and my orthopedic well being.”
“Do you have pain?”
“Betty Silverman was here earlier when they took Augustus away. You remember Betty, don’t you?”
He remembered her well. The feline eyes and straight teeth. He felt by her, however, a little put off, as if she had a sort of innate vanity. “I remember her. How is she?”
“Verbose, as usual.”
“Typical. I remember the last time I saw Betty. God, it must be twenty years ago now. We went to a museum in the City. I forget which. She told me she was envious of Nefertiti.”
“That sounds like Betty. She’s always got an eye out for who’s better or worse off.”
“Like that one time she went down to Islamorada for Christmas and came back saying it was the worst time of her life. She liked a white Christmas and down there was only heat and greaseballs.”
He was trying to make his mother laugh. She was not biting. “In all actuality,” he said, “we have it the best up here, where there are seasons. You like the seasons, don’t you? The change?”
“Yes, sure, honey. I like the seasons.” Judy was far off, thinking about the man she had married, the never-ending laughter and warmth, and thought of his body in the morgue with the other bodies, ichor and insects, and said, “You know, I was hoping he would outlast me. That sounds selfish, doesn’t it? That I would go first.”
“No, it isn’t,” Franklin said. “That’s human.” A serpentine shiver slithered up his spine. “Don’t be ashamed. Some people around the world celebrate death, like the Mexicans.”
“I don’t want to hear about Mexicans,” Judy said. She then let out an elephantine trumpet laugh and tears started coming from her eyes. “I remember when we got you that jacket for Christmas, the one with green stripes on it and how Augustus said it looked so girly.”
“I remember that jacket,” said Franklin. “Dad took it out of my closet when I was asleep and donated it to the Salvation Army. I liked that jacket.”
Attentiveness exchanged places with melancholy in Judy’s eyes. Franklin noticed color coming into her cheeks like she was blushing and was revitalized by the change. If it was one thing Franklin could not ascertain it was if his mother’s life would better or worsen now that his father was gone. She took care of him five years throughout his sickness and yet avoided attrition.
“Everything is going to be all right,” Franklin said.
“Oh, I know everything is going to be all right,” Judy said. She sounded a bit absconding. “Oh, I’ve been so astute throughout this whole time and finally he’s left me.”
Franklin Tremont thought of fate. Some people wished the departed luck and went about their lives with glee. Some did not. Some clung to the departed and felt stark avarice all the while. “Do you still go to church?” Franklin asked.
Judy said, “No.”
Franklin thought of his first girlfriend. She sang in the church choir; she was an alto and sang well. If it was one thing his mother needed it was sound, music, something to keep away the silence. “I’m going to get you a stereo system.”
“A stereo system? I don’t want one.”
“It’s going to be so quiet in here. You need something, some music, something. I’m going to get you a stereo system with six disk changer and you can listen to Edith Piaf, how does that sound? In 2016 Anno Domini.”
“I don’t know how to work a stereo system.”
“It’s easy. You don’t even need an allen wrench.”
“Okay. Buy me a stereo system and I’ll listen to Edith Piaf.”
“That’s more like it. Something to alleviate the silence.”
The total stillness of night shook Judy Tremont with abrasiveness. Franklin was in his childhood bedroom. She could not get to sleep. The room was warm and she felt well but the silence and the empty spot beside her kept her cold. She lay on her back, her eyes closed. Judy saw images flash by in her mind’s eye. The Statue of Liberty. Augustus, twenty-five years of age. It was eerie and noiseless.
Judy did not think of herself in all her seventy-six years of life as a victim. Now, the melodrama of victimization sifted into her like a winter chill. It was uncomfortable and she was uneasy. The friends of her youth still had their husbands save Rita Purcell, a childhood friend who lost her husband to massive stroke and never remarried. Judy remembered the incident well. She thought it would be quite simple for Rita. Rita Purcell was young then and could remarry. But, the postmortem depression was too much. She skulked and was not seen often henceforth. Judy Tremont feared the same would happen to her. She did not want to fall out of camaraderie. I should start attending church, she thought; and then dismissed the thought as desperate and sappy.
What travesty death was. It came and it went, coldhearted. It left nothing in return. The departed were the departed and that was that. The dark expanse before her eyes opened into exquisite fear, which was bordered by loneliness and apathy. She felt guilt and embraced it for the lack of Augustus’s body and remembered a present Augustus had bought her for no reason at all, just because he loved her and wanted to see her smile—a tapestry with a green woodsy scene, a deer drinking from a stream. She could not remember why she did not like it. It was something from Augustus. She should have been happy and accepting, shown that she liked it when she did not. The tapestry hung above the mantle for two weeks before she took it down, rolled it up, and placed in the garage. Augustus never mentioned it. He must have thought it trivial, a bygone throe that his wife must have been experiencing regarding the tapestry. Women, he must have thought, and ten years later he would roll over in bed and breath in Judy’s face his final words, a spiritual telecommunication between two aged and imperfect lovers.
Judy opened her eyes. The digital clock read 2:32 A.M. She was not tired. However, she was. She wanted the morning to come so she could have a reason to rise and drink tea. The Earth claimed everybody, downtrodden as was its nature. Time was the only factor, the when and where and how of death. Not the if. No, not the if, she thought. Not the if. Judy had a subtle but provoking grasp on death; she knew the material body was just that—material—and that when it died the mind expanded into the realm of whatever inclination the individual had in store—intellect, creativity. She remembered her youth while lying in bed. How inferior she felt to the other girls before she started reading Plath and Shakespeare. That was her first awakening. Literature. And then, her second realization was that she was a stickler for “good boys.” One night of Everclear with Ray Richards in 1945 was all she needed to figure that out. Augustus came along in 1950 and she knew she found a real man. She found, in youth, boys debilitating; and Augustus seemed to alleviate some pressure and the mystery of sex became a very real thing and she started standing, her back erect, with more confidence after meeting Augustus, a sense of pride in her bones, which now had grown frail and porous. Youth had been a noble venture, she reflected, it nearing now 3 A.M.
Insofar as reminders, she had behind her home a dense wood through which Franklin used to play in his youth, a gentle stream not one hundred yards east of the home. Fish were far from insufficient in that stream. Many times Augustus took Franklin there to fish. They caught trout. Sometimes they caught nothing. But Franklin always came back with a smile on his face, sat at the kitchen table after fishing, and had a cup of hot chocolate.
Lying in bed, she thought if Franklin remembered the poems he used to write. He must, she thought. There was shoebox full of old poems he had written. They would comprise a tome if they were put in one book. She had no clue where she had put that shoebox and thought somewhere in this big house was a plethora of childish verse and made a mental note to search the abode for them, to resurrect her son. She could not deny it. Franklin had become a man of honor. But, there was, she realized, this day, a certain innocence lost; a tentativeness that she loved in him was gone. He was full of witticisms and idioms.
Teleportation to better times and better places. Death, youth. It made no difference. People changed and people never did. She was ensconced and so was Franklin by Augustus’s death. How ensconced they were there was no telling.
Franklin Tremont searched his pockets for the instruction manual of a one-hundred and eighty watt stereo system, now installed in Judy Tremont’s living room. “It’s simple,” Franklin said, “once you get used to it.”
Judy was standing poised, observing Franklin. He was fiddling with the six CD changer. From the garage, he had gotten all her CDs. There were few. Sinatra, Ravel, and of course Piaf. He put in a CD and hit play. Piaf’s voice came in over the speakers.
“How’s that for sound?” Franklin asked.
Judy stood, apprehensive. She had not listened to music in years.
“The silence would debilitate you,” Franklin said.
Judy did not speak. She stood, listened, and shifted her weight one foot to the other and watched Franklin. He was the victor. She had succumbed to his wishes. She did not want the stereo in her house and thought that Augustus and Augustus only was the envoy to happiness.
Franklin stood. “Piaf was debutante.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Judy said.
“Just listen. You know this song.”
She did. It was one of her favorite Edith Piaf songs, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” She felt like crying. She did not want to cry in front of Franklin. He was so wrapped up in his stereo system. A sham. Augustus’s headstone was occupying her thoughts. They bought two adjoining plots at the local cemetery. Augustus was being laid to rest next week. “Franklin, are you coming to the funeral?”
He paused “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” “Of course. Trish and the two kids will be there, too.”
“Good, because I don’t want be alone in a big cold cemetery with Betty Silverman, Rita Purcell, and the priest. I don’t want to think you’ve forgotten us.”
Franklin had the intention of buying a bouquet of chartreuse daisies and laying them on the grave. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he said, and started up the Piaf song again. A precocious wave, compassion, took Franklin to his mother and he held her tight. It was as if he were willing away the apathy, a deportation.
Judy had already picked out the casket, an ebony casket, which would house Augustus. The previous night, she had come to a realization. She wanted nothing of the world. That morning she unhooked her phone. She was not expecting calls. And she did not want absentminded calls from some telemarketer to off-end her meditative train of thought. But, the fear remained with the realization. She yearned for a sense of transparency; a means to elevate. She caught herself the previous night thinking about the emasculation of saints—that was her last thought before sleep—and a feeling, delinquent and apathetic, overcame her upon waking, a feeling that attempted to destroy oscillating memories, Augustus, strong tea and snowfall and warm clothes, the memories actualized and quite captivating.
She had dreamt of villas that morning before waking and titivating chateaus, which danced in her vision like illusions. The finality of seasons, children prancing and birds flocking. Picturesque and taunting, the image stayed for many seconds and she wanted to penetrate into the expanse and dillydally in the garden. Eloquent clouds were vivid in her dream and held substance, as if they could congeal into Godhead and defeat, eviscerate any foe, any villain that came to pass. Judy had met her deadline. Fate was showing her this stable and perfect vision and she made a pact in that dream with herself that she would not tell anybody about it—there was now only the inevitability that she traverse into and evoke within these illustrious memories before they did evaporate.
About the Author:
Anders M. Svenning was born in New York, New York. He started writing seriously at the age of nineteen and has now been published in many literary magazine throughout the United States and abroad. Some of the most recent include The Wagon Magazine, Siren’s Call, and Futures Trading. Anders currently lives in Palm City, Florida. He is the author of short story collection Nonpareil (Tule Fog Press).