Olivia Clare Friedman
Never had my mother wanted to live so much as when she was dying. What she made me promise was that she wouldn’t be cremated, that she would be buried with a gravestone in our own yard.
“If I can’t be in a cemetery,” she said, “the yard’s the one place I want to be.”
I told her I would do everything I could.
She said, “I mean it. Complete the circle.”
Just as she died within it, she’d been born in our house. My grandmother was in labor on the living room floor, the midwife guiding, sliding, coaxing my mother’s slick newborn body. For ten whole minutes, my mother did not let forth her first scream. When she finally opened her mouth, opened her eyes, the scream she let out would not stop.
Countless times while my mother was alive, I’d thought about her wish, about not reporting her death. About doing as she wanted, digging a hole in the backyard beside my grandfather’s bench, finding a makeshift grave marker. I’d even dug a bit of earth in the yard before she died, hacking at the ground with a rusted spade. I made no progress. The earth would not give, and I made no hole or dent.
I’d heard on the news about people doing it, burying their loved ones in their own yards, getting caught—one way or another, reported by a neighbor when the rainwater would wash a body up from its shallow plot. It was a federal offense, $50,000 in fines if you were caught, up to 5 years jail time, and government seizure of the body.
Jail wasn’t what scared me. In the end, I couldn’t think of it—my mother’s dead body intact, lying in the ground outside our house, so near to me. My mother’s physical flesh and blood, her blood not moving. It was her physical body I was afraid of. Her corpse so near to me in the yard. I couldn’t think of her body lying there in the ground, her hair, her toes, disintegrating. And when I woke up—her body still there, when I watched TV, ate supper. What if her body came up in a storm? I couldn’t think of looking out the window, seeing her hand or foot emerging from the earth, not quite buried enough, coming back up through the ground.
With me, the only person in the world knowing she was there.
I never wanted to lose my mother’s body, to surrender her. But I didn’t know how to live with her buried in the yard, or how to dig a grave for my own mother.
On the day she died, I couldn’t even touch her. I’d woken in the chair next to her bed. Her eyes were closed, she was no longer breathing. All I could do was sit, watch for a while, struck dumb with grief, stay in her company.
I thought for just a minute—almost struck up the courage—of carrying her body to the yard, wrapped in a sheet, her limbs draped over me. Folding her body up, sealing it in the ground, watching her face disappear. I couldn’t do it. I made the phone call, reported my own mother’s death. Me, the dolty-dolt, sorry-hearted Alma Lee.
On the morning of the fourth day Bordelon stayed with me, we drank beer, watched TV. Perky women on the shopping channel sold caftans made in fabrics in bright colors. Two easy payments of $19.99. We watched infomercials on synthetic diet pills and 7-in-1 insta-cookers. Then a game show with people rolling large dice for big money.
“Come on, big money!” I yelled.
“They have to pay taxes on that,” Bordelon said, when one of the women rolled right, won $26,000. The TV woman jumped up and down, cried right into the camera. I liked seeing other people cry on TV. I could feel my own tears coming, tears of simultaneous happiness and sadness for this woman who exclaimed she’d never had so much money in her life. I cried a lot when watching TV. Soaps and game shows and medical dramas and lawyer shows. Re-runs of Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons on during the day, then Matlock and Perry Mason. Even I knew what I was crying about was much more than fiction.
“How much are the taxes?” I said.
“At least a third,” said Bordelon. “And she doesn’t get it all at once. Bet they give it to her in tiny checks, little pieces at a time. You ever read about lottery winners?” She had her dress hiked up in the heat. She held her beer between her knees.
There was talk of the government officially making gatherings for public mourning illegal.
“Well,” I said, staring into the woman’s eyes, “she’s happy now. That’s something.” I never had near so much money in my life. At the moment, $362 was sitting in my bank account. Soon but not soon enough, an unemployment check would come, or one from the state from the account my mother had set up. The checks were always different amounts, and I didn’t know why. I applied to what few jobs there were in St. Gen, and I never heard one peep back.
We watched the woman crying into the camera, her eyes clear and lit with happiness.
“She’ll find out later,” said Bordelon. “She’ll find out later how it really is.”
Then the news started. A couple neighborhoods in New Orleans were being shut down for good. In a few years, the land would be unlivable from too many floods. We were coming up on the 37th anniversary of Katrina. A newscaster was telling us all this from behind his desk in the studio, a large graphic of the Louisiana coastline projected beside his face.
Then a segment on protests. There was talk of the government officially making gatherings for public mourning illegal. Religious groups in our state, all over the country, were protesting. They were some of the angriest. There were rallies being organized, people holding up posters. THE DEAD HAVE RIGHTS TOO and GOD IS WATCHING and JESUS WEPT. Whenever I watched protestors on the news, I felt my own sadness come alive. Whole families were there. Children on the shoulders of their parents, holding signs. I thought of what we were doing to children.
As it was, each state stored the urns of the ashes. What would they want with the ashes of our dead? To take away our memory. To take away our mourning.
Now, they wanted to take funeral rites. Any public gatherings of mourning, where three or more were gathered.
The pope prayed for America. The ACLU brought together their lawyers, started petitions, just as they’d done with mandated cremation. I’d signed a few of them last year, but now I was inside the new normal, a slow sink to the bottom of an ocean. When a change first happened, no one could believe it, and then, impossibly, we did.
I took the remote, punched a button, turned the whole thing off. Bordelon tipped back her head and closed her eyes. She wasn’t asleep, just still, holding her beer between her knees.
“Sometimes I think I’m already dead,” she said.
“Sometimes me too,” I said.
Sometimes I thought I could hear it all vanish. Even the edges of the earth.
The automated email from the Government Death Site came that afternoon. They wanted to see me at the parish office in Alexandria. It would be a 30-minute interview. I needed to bring the applicant’s (a) certified, state-issued long form birth certificate, (b) license or state-issued ID, (c) original Social Security card, (d) utility bills (lights, water, gas) and three other identifiers from column E, such as a bank statement or lease. For the decedent I needed to bring (a) a certified, state-issued long form birth certificate, (b) an original Social Security card, (c) $107 for application fee paid to the Parish Clerk, and (d) all of the following: any life insurance policy (she had none), marriage or divorce certificate (she had none), the last five years of tax returns, the last three years of bank statements, any of the decedent’s canceled checks, any will or testament.
The final thing they requested was a personal item. The best thing, the email said, was to bring a photograph. If you had one—“if available to the applicant”—a print photograph. I clicked to the page that would allow me to make an appointment. I’d thought I’d wait weeks, but there was a slot for early the next morning. I checked the box, clicked Submit. Went to my email for the confirmation link. I confirmed.
I’d kept everything about my mother, every form and scrap of paper. Every piece of mail that came. All of it was folded and scrambled, some of it unopened, stored in a battered filing cabinet I kept in the closet. All that afternoon and evening I hid myself away—Bordelon watching afternoon talk shows and dozing beneath the diamonded quilt on the couch, snoring, waking herself up, then back to dozing—searching through each box, finding what I needed, willing myself not to look too hard at what I didn’t. If I let myself look, if I let myself read everything, I’d be lost to it, drowning in the objects of my mother, unable to emerge or lift my eyes away.
On the road to Alexandria, we passed thick curtains of wild grasses and philodendron. I wrote about flowers, even drew them in my late-night time alone. I knew so many by their names. Bordelon put her feet up on the dash, stared out the window. She wore her Jackie O sunglasses like a star.
She’d been the one to ask to come with me. The night before she’d found me with the filing cabinet, surrounded by my mother’s papers. She’d wanted to keep me company and take a drive, and also she didn’t feel like being alone.
Hydrangeas rotted in front yards. Wild azaleas grew in packs. You could smell their rankness, the air brimming with sweet, candied stink. If my mother had a headstone, I would bring her azaleas. I’d pick each one—a quick snap of the stem from the ground—and fill my arms, my purse, my car to bursting. Yes, I could take these flowers’ souls.
The Office of the Parish Clerk was a standalone building with a dented metal roof, a large frayed American flag out front, the rope dinging the flagpole in the wind. Two people sat in the waiting room, the size of a high school classroom. A man and woman, both silver-haired, seated separate and silent, their hands in their laps. The front desk was vacant. I was carrying a large leather portfolio my mother had once given me for my drawings. In there were all the forms, birth and death certificates, policies and paperwork they’d asked for. I had also carefully placed a photo of my mother inside a manila envelope. It was my favorite photograph, the one that stayed tucked at the back of a drawer, only for my eyes. When I looked at it, even for a moment, my body ached.
Bordelon and I sat in a corner, all to ourselves. A sign hung above our heads: MARRIAGE LICENSES. But we didn’t see young couples there. One of the walls had a white line painted a few feet high, right on the brick. I’d seen those white lines before, meant to show the highest place the floodwater had risen to.
I looked to my right—the older woman sniffed, used a worn tissue to wipe a drop trembling from her nostril. There were Bibles, thin and thick, abridged and unabridged, on the scarred table. An industrial sized bottle of hand sanitizer with a grungy pump, a tabloid with a cover featuring British royalty in trouble with the law. Bordelon picked up the magazine and began thumbing her way through, her bag between her knees, her sunglasses propped on her head like two bug eyes.
“These assholes,” she said. She shook her head, looked right into the faces of a film star couple. I recognized them. The man had gotten in trouble for having an affair with the nanny.
A large man with a bald head came out from a hidden room in the back of the county clerk’s office and sighed and looked at a computer screen. Then he called out my mother’s Urn Identification Number. I stood, picked up my leather portfolio. Bordelon looked up at me from her magazine and squeezed her eyes with a long blink. We’d agreed earlier—I’d go in alone.
The bald man called the Urn Number again, and I walked up. He opened a thigh-high swinging door, led me to a smaller desk, told me to sit. He sat behind it, in front of what looked like a new computer. A small placard was posted: URN CLAIMS.
“What’s the State Death Number?” His hands were over the keyboard, ready for me to start talking. He wore a Saints tee shirt and bright blue braces. The Saints hadn’t played in a few years. There was talk of moving the team to another state entirely.
“Her number,” I said, “is BROUS440931.”
“That’s the Urn ID,” he said. “What’s the State Death Number?” He looked at the screen, not at me, his fingers ready to type.
I took each page from my portfolio, delicately handed over each one, one by one by one, as though they were heirlooms.
I took the death certificate from my portfolio and searched for the number. He sighed and looked over.
“Give that to me,” he said.
He scanned the quick response code, then asked me a series of questions to confirm information on the screen. Full name? I told him. Address? Social security number? Weight? Age? Cause of death? I gave my mother’s full name, my grandparents’ full names, as best I knew them.
He stuck out his hand. “Are you paying with cash or card?” he said. “No checks. There’s a five-dollar fee for cards, credit or debit.”
I put my poor little credit card in his palm. $112. He had a card reader on his desk and scanned my card through. He printed out a receipt and handed that to me. Screen, scan, swipe was all I or my mother was to him.
Then he asked me for every single piece of paperwork I had brought. I took each page from my portfolio, delicately handed over each one, one by one by one, as though they were heirlooms. In some ways, that was just what they were. He snatched them from me, began to scan them through a scanner on his desk. His braces flashed in the fluorescent light.
After ten minutes passed, I said, “When’s the interview?”
“This is it,” he said.
“You’re in it,” he said. “We’re doing it right now.”
When the scans were done, he punched on the keyboard, looking from the scanned papers to the screen—up, down, up down. The sound of him punching the keys—something about how slight the sound was against the mass of what we were doing—made me dizzy.
He handed me a piece of paper with instructions.
“Read it,” he said.
I was to write out a formal letter, with specific guidelines for each paragraph, saying formally my relationship to the decedent, saying formally I had no other family. I was to sign the letter with a closing statement. I was to have it notarized. I had three days.
“In three days,” the man said. “You come back. You bring the letter, and you come back right here.”
“How do I notarize?”
“Hold on,” he said. He was looking right at me now. “Let me finish. If you are allowed to have the decedent’s urn,” he said. “You cannot bury it. You must keep it, in your own dwelling. Ashes stay in the urn. Read the bottom.” He leaned over, sharply tapped the paper with his pen. “See there? Read that there.”
“Ashes must be kept in the urn. They may not float in the sea. They may not rise in the air. You may not scatter. You may not bury.”
“Okay,” I said. “Y’all notarize the letter here?”
He turned back to his screen, smacked his mouth over his braces. “You go to a notary,” he said.
“You find one yourself,” he said. “They charge you.”
“How much?” I said.
“Ask them, not me.”
“Where do I find one?”
He didn’t answer. Instead he took my stack of papers to a back room to make copies. When he came back, he had a can of Mountain Dew and my mother’s papers. He put the copies he’d made in an orange file folder. He handed my originals back to me, moist from the can’s condensation. I didn’t know what I was doing, or what got into me, but I had to say something. I said just what came into my head, letting the words leave my mouth before I could chase them back.
“Anyone else in this office think this is crazy?” I said.
He did not look at me. He put the folder in a metal stand on his desk of other orange and blue and white file folders.
“We can’t comment,” he said.
I couldn’t stop myself. “You can’t comment,” I said. “And we’re all just doing it. Saying nothing like this. Going about our business. My god.”
“It’s my job,” he said.
“I get that.”
“And sure. God’s involved too.”
“You think this is something God wants?” I said. “You pretend to know it?”
He sat there, looked stiffly into my eyes. “We can’t comment,” he said.
He cracked open his can of Mountain Dew and went back to his work. That was all, he told me. We were done. Later, I remembered: he never asked for the picture of my mother.
Driving back to St. Genevieve, I rolled down the windows for the green smell of life, the rotting overbloom. I told Bordelon I didn’t want any music on, didn’t want to talk. She just stared out, watched the wild roadside green scroll by.
“Just tell me what’s wrong,” I said.
My leather portfolio sat on the back seat. The applicant. The deceased. The decedent. Here lies. Here lies paper. What I wanted was just her ashes, a simple thing to want. I could throw all the papers to the wind. None of these things was my mother.
“Hold on,” Bordelon said. She took off her sunglasses and looked out the window, sat up in the seat. “Pull over.”
“What?” I said. “Stray dog?”
We were on a two-lane highway, a few other lonely cars and a truck tugging a camper behind us.
“Just tell me what’s wrong,” I said.
“Right here?” I said.
“Pull over, pull over, pull over.”
I skidded to the soft, grassy side of the road, stopped the car. The truck with the camper took off ahead of us.
“Over there.” She looked back behind us, pointed out the window. “A ways back now. You wouldn’t pull over.”
In the middle of a small field, a few hundred feet from us, was a tree. A bold crepe myrtle, stark against the weeds, blooming alive with fuchsia.
I turned off the engine. We got out of the car, and all we could do was stare at the myrtle. It was all on its own, and not tall, and not not tall, but strong and rising, brimming with limbs and bright blossoms.
“I feel like we should do something,” said Bordelon.
“Like what, exactly?” I said. But I knew what she meant.
“I don’t know. Meditate, make a wish, throw a penny.”
As if by instinct, by some magnetic pull, we walked side-by-side to the tree. We had no explanation, no reason it should be there, but there it was, here, here, like a rising flame, a flowering sword.
Olivia Clare Friedman is the author of the story collection Disasters in the First World and the poetry collection The 26-Hour Day. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The O. Henry Prize Stories, Granta, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, among other publications. Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she teaches Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she holds the title of Nina Bell Suggs Endowed Professor. “Myrtle” is an excerpt from Here Lies, her first novel, forthcoming from Grove Press.