following is based on a true story. The names have been changed to protect the
not-so-innocent. . . .
Laura Sue Billings stepped out onto the porch
and lit yet another cigarette. It was her twenty-first of the day, but then it
had been a long fucking day. At twenty-five, Linda was a small, thin woman,
twice married and once divorced, her first husband having been killed in a car
When she was young, she was a heller. She’d
always been a tomboy, more interested in working on cars with her dad and
playing softball than wearing girlie clothes and dancing. When she was
seventeen and seven months pregnant, she hitchhiked all the way to Big Sur,
just because she’d always wanted to go there, and to prove to herself she was
up to the task and could survive.
She huffed smoke out into the eastern Colorado
wind and thought, Fuck, it’s cold out
here! Manzinola was a small town on the flat, dry plains of the eastern end
of the state and there was little to break the wind coming out of Canada,
except the occasional single-strand barbed wire fence.
In a way it was damned inconvenient for Grandma
Billings to die in the winter, but as soon as she had that thought, Laura hated
herself for it. Grandma was down in Ordway, about ten miles south, lying in her
casket in the funeral home, and she and her younger sister Terri Ann were
supposed to go down for the viewing, but as always, Terri Ann was late. Always
late. Most irresponsible woman God ever
put upon the earth, Linda thought, she’ll
most likely be late to her own goddamn funeral, how could I expect her to be on
time for this one?
minutes later, Terri Ann had arrived and they were headed down to Ordway,
gabbing away in the car, with the heater turned up, catching up with the
goings-on of their extended families. Terri Ann summed up her lateness with two
words. “Black Ice,” she said, and Laura remembered how long it had taken her
and Jerry to make it up from Dodge City. As always, Laura forgave Terri her
trespasses and they were buds again.
Jonachs’ funeral home was nothing fancy, a
chalet-style brick building with a steep roof and an ornate door that led
directly into a foyer, where there was a podium set up with a remembrance book,
so everyone could sign in. As Laura picked up the pen, Terri said, in a thin
whisper, “Will the real Laura Sue Billings please . . . sign in?” It was a
takeoff on some old celebrity game show and Laura didn’t think it was funny.
She wondered if Terri was using drugs again. Or still. She handed the pen to
Terri, who stuck her tongue out and scribbled her name across two lines.
They walked in to the cloying smell of too many
flowers and something else, probably embalming fluid.
There was a center aisle in the chapel, with
pews on either side and family seating at the right front with a privacy screen
of sorts. They were greeted by one of the proprietors, a lady named Linda Lentz
who showed them back to where Grandma Billings lay in her silver coffin, a
single spotlight shining down on her. The rest of the room was lighted by about
six or seven candles, placed on tables and shelves. That was part of the smell,
too. Linda said, “I’m gonna run on home. You gals be sure and pull the door
shut tight when y’all leave. G’night.”
And they were alone with Grandma.
“Her hair don’t look right,” Terri Ann said,
“she never parted it like that.”
“I know, and look at all that makeup! Grandma
never would have painted herself up like that.”
“You gotta comb?”
“Lemme see.” Laura dug around in her purse and
came up with a hairbrush. It would have to do. They set to work getting
Grandma’s hair done right. She’d always worn it combed straight back and in a
little while, with a bit of work, it looked better. It looked more like Grandma
“Gotta do something about that makeup. Gawd,
look at the fucking rouge!”
It wasn’t unusual for either of them to drop
the “F” bomb and they both giggled. Laura said, “We need Kleenex, and I don’t
“Here!” Terri Ann was looking back in the rows
of pews and she came back with several boxes of tissues, the cheap kind you
always find in funeral homes and hospitals, the kind that shred apart in
nothing flat and never hold enough tears.
They set to work, scrubbing Grandma’s face,
using up tissues like crazy, having to wet them with spit and then change
frequently because neither of them relished the thought of licking a tissue
that had just been on a dead person’s face, even if it was Grandma.
“Grandma always liked me better than anyone
else,” Laura said, as they scrubbed away.
“She tell you that?” Terri was changing tissues
and eyeing her with a mixture of curiosity and scorn.
“She didn’t have to. I was the only grandkid
she ever spanked.”
“Yeah, that’s love, right there.”
“Fuckin’ right. At least in our family. If they
don’t love ya enough ta smack ya once in a while . . .”
At last, most of the garish undertaker makeup
was gone, leaving just a hint of blush on the old lady’s cheeks and a bit of
lipstick. Grandma looked a lot better and they both knew she would have been
pleased with what they’d done.
Terri Ann walked over to a casket spray of
roses and carnations and pulled out two carnations. She stuck one through the
lapel buttonhole of her shirt and put the other through Laura’s. “Grandma
always shared with us,” she said.
Then she punched Laura a good one right in the
shoulder. It was something they’d done to each other since they were kids.
Trading punches was not abuse. Not in their family. Trading punches was being
tough and spitting in the eye of the world. Trading punches was love. Terri
took all the nasty used tissues and wandered off to find a trash can or the
restrooms. She came back in a few minutes and then they were ready to leave,
their respects paid, their duty done.
When they got to the door, they turned for a
last look and Laura whispered, “G’bye, Grandma. . . .”
And every last one of those candles suddenly
went out. . . .
“Shining Up Grandma” was first published in
Yellow Mama ezine, Issue #51, August, 2015