She wakes up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, propelled by a sense of urgency.
“What…?” she thinks, and then it floats in to her: she and her brother are finalizing their parents’ gravestone today.
And then she realizes it is happening again: a story is unspooling in her head, demanding her attention. She swings her feet over the edge of the bed. Leans back on her hands. And listens.
There is a little girl, Lucy: thin and brown with snapping eyes and long dark hair. She must be…third grade?
“I’m eight,” Lucy says to the old lady. Lucy is sitting next to the old lady’s bedside. The old lady, she sees now, is called Mae, and she is, maybe, Lucy’s great-grandmother.
Mae holds out her hand and Lucy puts her tiny brown hand into it. Both so delicate, both so fragile. And yet. The hands grasp, and the bond is strong.
“I’m 93,” Mae is saying, answering Lucy’s question. “That’s’ very old! It’s old enough, in fact.”
“Are you dying?” Lucy asks, baldly, and Mae answers in the same way.
“Yes, I am,” she says. “But I think we have enough time to really get to know each other.”
Her phone rings—at 6 a.m.?—and she lets Mae and Lucy go, reluctantly. They slide away; a door snicks shut, but doesn’t lock; and she answers Devin’s call. No, she says; not today. Today is the gravestone day. Don’t you remember?
Clearly, he does not, but he backtracks quickly, promising to call her later, and she clicks off and heads off to take her shower.
Lucy and Mae dance in the back room of her consciousness as she dresses and makes breakfast. She sees that Lucy is troubled, does not fit in at school; that she is smart, but maybe not in ways teachers appreciate. She sees to the core of a person, Lucy does, and she reacts, and acts, according to what she sees.
Mae is much the same way. She sees that Mae has lived a controversial life…there may have been many men, many leave-takings. Mae did not stick around if falseness ruled; she insisted on honesty and integrity, and when they were absent, so was she. She has a picture of Mae, much younger, and a little girl who is crying. They are getting on a train, porters are stashing their luggage, and Mae is explaining, softly, to the girl, who seems inconsolable.
Her brother is at her door at 8; they climb back into his car. It is almost a three-hour drive to the cemetery where they have finally decided to inter her parents—her father, who’d died of a sudden heart attack two years ago. Her mother, who’d had a harrowing cancer death four years before that. They’d each been cremated, at their request, and they had left no demands about the final disposal.
Before her mother had died, she’d said, “Whatever you decide to do, make sure I’m with your father.”
And her father, whose death had taken him by surprise, had only joked.
“What do I care?” he’d said. “I’ll be dead.”
When he was dead, shockingly dead, she and her brother were frozen. The cremation went forward as decreed, but they couldn’t, in that moment, make a decision. It had taken time and distance to see that, of course, the place to put their parents was with their brother Danny, who’d died from leukemia at age ten and was buried in the city where they’d all lived at the time.
She had been twenty when Danny died; her brother had been 22. Danny had been a beloved surprise.
The city was three miles away.
Her brother drives and rain falls softly and she leans back into the seat and dozes. And there are Lucy’s parents: she is fair and has a tumble of reddish hair; she is Rachel. She calls him Zeus; Lucy gets her coloring from him. He is sharp and dark. Electric things—love and tension—crackle between them.
They are arguing about Lucy and Mae.
“What happens when Mae dies?” Zeus demands. “Where does that leave Lucy?”
“It leaves her having had one more person who loved her,” Rachel retorts. “One strong, amazing person. It’s better to have Mae for a little while than never at all.”
Then they are hugging; he rocks her, and she murmurs, “It’s too late anyway. We can’t ask Lucy to unlove her.”
A raw, ripping sound bolts her upright. She turns to her brother, who looks sheepish.
“Sorry,” he says. “Getting hungry.”
They turn into an Applebee’s so he can grab a bite to eat—her brother, the champion belcher.
Rachel and Zeus fade; it’s like they see her watching, and each reaches out a hand to softly close heavy doors. The doors come together with a smooth and final shush, and they are gone.
The stone is lovely. It says ‘O’Malley,’ in bold letters across the top, and has each parent’s name below, with their birth and death dates. The names are punctuated by a beautiful Celtic cross, and a line reads, Together: still, again, and forever.
They’d argued about that. She wanted something funnier—her father had always said that bit about being in heaven an hour before the devil knows you’re dead. Maybe, she thought, they could adapt that somehow, but her brother won out. Simple, he said. Dignified. We can share the funnier stories another way.
Finally she’d agreed, since he wasn’t budging anyway. And now, she admits it looks just right. They would like it, and like the thought of sharing a green, peaceful spot with little Danny.
The woman at the monument maker’s office is actually an old friend of their mother’s. She tears up, working with them, but they complete the paperwork speedily, handle the payment, work out the details of installation. She wants them to come to her house for coffee or a meal.
She nudges her brother in the heel with her foot, and he declines in his best charming way.
“Sis has to work tonight,” he says, “and I promised my wife I’d be home in time to tuck the little one in.”
The woman flutters; her brother shows her baby pictures. Finally, they depart, disentangled from tearful hugs.
She drives home; her brother snores. And she watches the road—she really does—but Lucy and Mae come back to her. Mae, it seems, has been pared away; she is leaner—she is LESS—than when she saw them talking this morning. And Lucy knows what’s happening.
“I don’t want you to go,” Lucy says, and Mae’s frail hand reaches out to take the girl’s. There is strength in the clasped hands.
“I know you don’t,” says Mae. “I’m not really excited about going, but I think it will be all right.”
There is silence between them, and then Mae says, “Did you ever make marbled paper?”
Lucy looks at her, puzzled. And Mae says, “YOU know. You put paint on a piece of paper. Different colors. And you put it in a shoe box. Then you thrown in a few marbles, and you put the top on and shake it. Have you ever done that?”
Lucy nods, slowly.
“Well, we’re like that,” says Mae. “You’re one color, and I’m another, and we’ve been shaken up together. When I leave, I’m taking part of you with me. And when I go, part of me will stay here with you. Our colors have blended. We’ll be in different places, but we’ll never be really apart.”
Lucy puts her other hand on Mae’s and they are both crying now.
And her brother snorts awake, and Lucy and Mae fade away.
He plays with the radio; she cracks the window open to get a little fresh air in the car. She is going a comfortable five over the speed limit. A huge SUV roars past them, and she smiles.
“I don’t know if he’s fatter than me or faster than me,” she says, and they both laugh.
“Both, I’d say, maybe,” says her brother, and then they are quiet, remembering. That had been a Danny-ism. He’d been three years old, and they had taken him to the playground, where he’d had, with another kid about the same age, a long conversation. Finally, Danny had come over to talk to her.
“He wants me to race him,” he whispered loudly. “That kid.”
“Well,” she said, “do you want to race?”
“I don’t know,” Danny whispered urgently. “Is he fatter than me, or faster than me?”
It turned out the kid, like the SUV, was both, and the line became a catch phrase they invoked before making risky decisions. Although they had stopped saying that after Danny died; it seemed to hurt them all too much.
But it feels right to say it now, and she sees a streak of paint spreading across a piece of paper: green for Danny, young and hopeful.
It is just after three when he drops her off; she does not have to work until six, and she settles in to the comfy chair with a book; she closes her eyes and lets the day seep in. And there are Rachel and Lucy, both wet-faced. She knows that Mae must have died.
Lucy asks Rachel where people GO, and Rachel says she doesn’t know.
“But,” she says, “physics tells us that you can’t destroy energy. And so the energy that was Mae has got to be somewhere. I don’t know, baby, if that’s heaven or something else, but I know she’s out there someplace.”
“Never really apart,” murmurs Lucy, and Rachel is puzzled, but she gathers the little girl in and they huddle, comforting each other.
She gets off work at 2 a.m., and she comes home and types the story of Lucy and Mae. She prints it out and puts it in the story box she keeps.
The next day she buys marbles and acrylics and she puts a piece of parchment paper in a shoe box. She pours in smears of paint. Blue for her mother and red for her dad. Green for Danny. Purple for her brother, a balanced mix of hot and cold. And orange for her, because she stills simmers, hot and unsettled.
She throws in five marbles, puts the top on, and rolls them around.
She does that nine times, and she lays the papers on her kitchen table.
The next day, before work, she picks the one she likes best, and she gets out her matting machine and an ornate old black frame. She cuts the matte, and she trims the picture, and she puts them in the frame. She turns it over to look; there is a riot of intersected color, uproarious, blended. Sometimes, one color will track away from the others, separate, but changed by the contact.
Perfect, she thinks, and she slide the cardboard backing in. She pencils onto it, “Marble painting. Never really apart.” She initials it and adds the date.
She pounds a nail into an empty space of wall right above her bread box. The painting adds a bright splash of color.
She cleans up her project detritus, and then she gathers her things and goes to work.