A Buick for the Bird

17 Oct


For twenty minutes raging fierce, banging off the roof and rumbling down through the drainpipes, it poured.  When the fog settled, like too tight a knot, it only added confusion to the mix.  Tess thought it an auspicious beginning in a week normally marked by celebration.  When the phone rang against the background of thunder, she nearly missed the call.  It was too soon for anyone to be sending holiday wishes since Thanksgiving was still a week away.

The call sent Tess falling into the dining room chair in disbelief.  It was the kind of call that leaves you blank and after ‘hello’ you don’t talk; you can’t talk because your heart is breaking.  When she hung up the phone, Tess packed a bag and drove south slapping two hundred and forty miles of wet pavement, trying to reach Laine, hoping to stitch back together the wounds of a family.


Shortly after New Year’s Day and six weeks after the funeral, in the warmth of Laine’s kitchen, Tess and Laine sat surrounded by wallpaper that held a repeating border of coffee pot, sugar bowl, creamer and tiny spoons.  They sipped white wine and nibbled at slices of cheddar cheese and crisp apples. The French bread didn’t go wasted as Laine gathered the crumbs into her hands for the yellow-headed cockatoo.  “Good,” Tess said, “maybe that’ll keep him quiet.”

The bird had been pecking at a tiny bell hanging in its cage since she arrived.

Laine (short for Elaine), Church Lawrence and Tess Dushane had been friends for more than thirty years and together they both suffered through the humiliations of girlhood adolescence, bad make-up, badly fitting bras, and summers of Truth or Dare.

Tonight, however the conversation between her and Laine would wind up, Tess knew, to Charlie’s passing in some way and she was trying to figure out how to broach the subject without causing Laine to fuss.  For weeks after Charlie’s death, heads turned in the direction of the Lawrence household and the phone rang non-stop with friends wanting to help Laine and her kids in any way they could.  Some helped with taking the boys to school (if Laine overslept), some neighbors brought casseroles and homemade bread, some helped with the laundry, others even helped to balance her checkbook.

Laine’s mom and dad lived in another state and, knowing she couldn’t plan to see them on a regular basis because they were older now and didn’t like to travel as much, and, Laine, having no plans for travel herself especially down to Tennessee – a state she normally hated to visit even on a good day, was afraid to admit that traveling anywhere right now would break a routine she’d suddenly found herself accustomed to.  She took solace in her secret that she’d been visiting the cemetery everyday to “see” Charlie and if she left Long Island now, this was not something she could not do in Tennessee.  Though her mother’s offer to have her and the kids stay “as long as you like”, in the extra bedrooms, in the spacious ranch her parents occupied, was generous, her parents’ thoughts were not about Charlie as much as they were about Laine.  They didn’t want to put their daughter in any situation that would cause her more pain.  And so, when Laine declined her mother’s offer, telling her that she had to stick around the house because she felt “connected” in some way, it wasn’t exactly a lie.

Normally, Laine could zip around the ordinary household chores and juggle appointments, but since Charlie’s passing, her energy was zapped for even the simple task of sewing a button on a shirt, and if you asked her how she was, she would say she had a, “general malaise” or, as Tess liked to call it, “a dark cloud.”  Either way, it seemed that Laine was carrying around something unnatural with her for the past eight weeks and people were concerned, concerned because it was shameful the way Charlie died at work and Laine had a hard time swallowing the circumstances that surrounded it.

Charlie was lying on the men’s bathroom floor when the relief man found him.   When the call came in from the doctor, and Laine knew it was bad news because Charlie was already ninety minutes late, Laine was told that Charlie had died and that complications from sleep apnea had triggered a massive heart attack.  And it wasn’t the doctor so much as it was the relief man who found Charlie that provided the words of comfort that Laine needed to hear.  He told her Charlie was a, “Distinguished man, the only man I’d ever seen that looked so good when he died.”

Newsday printed up a small blurb about a Man Found Dead in Bathroom story that, at the time, sounded all too fiction-like, considering that Charlie died at Mt. Sinai hospital where he worked for over nine years; it was just too ironic for Laine to bear.  Feeling doubly-wounded by such news, Laine, feeling so taken back by the events, kept ruminating through the most troubling part: if someone worked in a hospital, shouldn’t they have at least a shot, better than a fifty-fifty chance, at having someone-anyone-save their life?  “That should’ve been part of the ‘benes’!” as in benefits, she had told Tess, and no one would disagree.

“Laine?” Tess asked, cutting a piece of cheddar cheese that she’d found delicious when it was at the right temperature and this slice was.  “Tell me about this guy, will you?  Come on.  He was a wacko?  I’m just curious.”

“I didn’t say he was a wacko.”  She was referring of course to the relief man who found Charlie.

When Laine phoned Tess to tell her the bad news that night in November, Tess had been perplexed by the relief man’s words, particularly the way in which he described Charlie’s appearance and tonight, though she couldn’t figure out the reasons why she wanted to bring it up again, Tess just couldn’t bring her mind not to think about it, and felt compelled to revisit the events of the story.

“He used some word to describe Charlie.  Was it that ‘he looked discernible?’ Just wondering, you know.  I didn’t quite hear it right.”

She would have to be delicate about the matter because if Laine got the feeling the she was being pushed too far, she’d erupt; and she wouldn’t just stop there.  She’d blame everyone else for making her lose her temper and, under the circumstances, she’d be justified.  Tess would have to go easy.

“Now, Laine, come on,” she told her.  “Let’s talk about it, get it out in the open.  It’s not good to hold things in.  It eats you up.”

Laine eyed her knowing she could’ve latched onto Tess’s last remark to her advantage. Laine was about the only person, besides her immediate family, who knew Tess’s secret of being barren.  And she knew how it happened.  When Tess told her, they both cried in each other’s arms.  But she couldn’t bring that up now and why should she?  She chose instead to let her have the hand, thus assuring the confidence stay kept.  That was the funny thing about Tess, she could scramble someone’s brain when she wanted to find something out, but just try getting something out of her.  She wasn’t going to let Laine off the hook so fast and Laine knew she’d have to spill the beans.

Laine found it hard to keep a secret- not only from Tess, but everyone else, too; and it was this, where at weekly mass Laine would ask a higher power for forgiveness-and it wasn’t a mortal sin but just an ordinary one-for her inability to keep her mouth shut.  And she knew Tess knew that she couldn’t keep a secret.  (Unlike Tess whose secrets went deep as a well.)   She even told Tess about her visits to the cemetery to talk to Charlie each day at noon.  Tess didn’t think she was crazy for going and she told Laine it was perfectly understandable as it was part of Laine’s healing process.  But when Tess asked her why she went at noon, she told her that there was no particular reason why she went at noon except that –and she was proud she hadn’t told Tess this part, but the reason for her going at noon was because she was bringing sandwiches to the cemetery where, even in the cold, she would sit and have lunch by Charlie’s gravesite.

“The word was, ‘Distinguished.’ Why?” Laine said dryly.

“Just asking.  Okay, okay.  A bit poetic, but okay.”

“Why?  Because he said, ‘distinguished’? It’s fine.”  Laine knew she was pushing Tess for a rise but she didn’t care.

Looking to avert an argument, Tess smiled and said, “Well.  Yeah.  It’s a little weird.  It’s like saying, “This omelet is fascinating.

“It’s fine,” Laine said, again.

“Hey, if anyone could be distinguished, it was Charlie.”

“He was distinguished.  What I minded, and I don’t know if it’s true, is this cross thing.”

“What cross thing?  And please don’t give me the long version.”

Being a drama major in college, it was Laine’s way to draw out stories for effect.  And she knew the lives of so many people who you’d allow for this indulgence of hers if all but to know the lives of the most obscure neighbors, neighbors who you barely saw and wondered if they were dead or alive.  You would be happy to see them, putting to rest your original suspicion come spring, where a wave of hello would be all you would exchange until the following spring.   Any story that happened between the seasons that might have affected these very same neighbors, Laine was right there, good-naturedly of course, with the highlights.

“I told you.  Charlie’s cross was missing.  No one was able to find it and, let me tell you, he always wore that cross, Tess.  Always.  But, as it turns out, I think I saw it on the relief man the first night of Charlie’s wake.  It had a diamond right in the center.  It was gold.  It was beautiful.”

“Laine, this is the first I’m hearing of a missing cross!  Are you sure?”

“I’m not sure.  But the cross resembled Charlie’s cross a lot.”

“I remember the cross, a little ostentatious for my taste. But, regardless.  Well, then, you’ve got to speak to this idiot.  How many people have a cross like that, right?  I didn’t see it the night of the wake.  I took one look at the guy’s sport jacket and I was like, ugh, what a freak.  He was wearing an orange-plaid coat.  He looked like he was going to Saratoga, not a wake.  People don’t wear orange to a wake, Laine.   Don’t let this one slide.”

Tess had a bad habit of taking people at face value and first impressions were critical for her.   Laine had always secretly resented Tess’s silent superiority in matters of fashion and what she’d considered to be good taste.

Feeling confident she knew what good manners were, too, she said, “I’m going to have to let it slide.  It would have been terribly wrong if I were to bring up the possibility of thievery at my husband’s wake.  And the implication would be, what?  I’d be suggesting that the relief man stole the cross off Charlie’s neck when he was dead, lying on the men’s bathroom floor?  That would be pretty rotten.”

She was right.  She’d have to let it slide.  Laine didn’t have the energy for confronting an issue that she could neither prove nor disprove.  If the relief man did steal Charlie’s cross, why would he wear it to Charlie’s wake in plain sight for her to see?  No, she would have to let the issue go.

Part of her wanted to crawl up in a shell, another part of her cursed Charlie for leaving, and another part of her wished she could have died too, though this one she dismissed very fast because of her sons.  If having to raise her sons alone as a widow of forty-six wasn’t bad enough, she couldn’t bear the thought of them growing up without both parents.  And the kids had come at a cost.  Having the two kids late in life, because Laine and Charlie were nearly poor in their twenties and thirties, Charlie and her both knew that by the time the boys reached college age, Laine would be approaching her 60th birthday and Charlie his 63rd.  But now, of course, all that had changed.  Laine still might be sixty attending her son’s graduations, but she’d no doubt go unescorted.  At least, that’s what she thought her future held.  And it was at this moment, as she thought about her future that, in a brief scenario that ran through her mind, that a part of her wished she could have died, too.


Unable to bear children due to a freakish accident that left her unable to bear children, Tess was too ashamed to become reinvolved, too afraid of being rejected for her infertility, and rejected like she was by her husband when she found out she couldn’t have kids, she had endured six years of an empty marriage before it dissolved into an ugly divorce.

It was not your garden variety of accidents.  No.  Jumping chairs, playing with her teenage brother one day after getting out of the pool in the backyard, her brother chased her so fast that, as Tess rounded the kitchen table, jumping between the kitchen chairs (which her parents got rid of immediately following the accident), she slammed down on the laddered back chair, tangling her foot in the tie of one of the chair cushions.  It had all happened so quickly and suddenly she was on the floor bleeding from her vagina, she was conscious only for a moment, before she fainted from the shock.

Refusing ever to become reinvolved, she transformed her energy into volunteer work where, for nearly thirty-five weeks out of the year, she helped to find homes for cats and dogs that were maimed, forgotten, or left behind in some way.  She needed to feel needed and by helping to restore the life of a defenseless animal, Tess could bury her hurt.

Copyright 2011, Terry Rachel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: