Betty Kemp, “The Death of Me.”

The Death of Me

It was all death and disease with Lupe lately; not that she hadn’t always dwelled on the darker issues all these years. It seemed to Rene that Lupe rarely seemed to leave that particular realm anymore. While Lupe chopped cilantro for the burrito bar, her elbows held out from her sides, like a bird poised for flight, she announced, to no one in particular, “Well, my brother-in law is in hospice, my sister called me last night. I told her he would drag her down. Oh well!” She gave the cilantro a hearty chop, as though she could sever his tenuous link to life right then and there. Rene paused on her way through the kitchen, letting the green, sunny scent of cilantro wash through her. It brought to mind her father’s garden where the hot summer sun beat down on his carefully erected beanpoles, and his patches of bitter melon, tomatoes, and eggplant, wild mustard and green onions. The memory, incongruous on such a cold, damp, December day, surprised Rene with its painful grip. She folded the image of the garden into a tight little package and stowed it away while eyeing Lupe for signs of distress, some hint of grief for the brother-in law in question. But Lupe chopped away with an air of vindication, the knife making a ragged pile on the white cutting board, staining it green.

“I thought he was going into a rest home,” Rene said. “I didn’t think he was that bad.”

Lupe tightened her lips. “My sister thought she could take care of him! I told her, you can’t do it yourself. I told her, it’s his own fault. He never would do what the doctors told him. She’s lost twenty pounds, she had a panic attack…all the stress!” Lupe dumped the lot into a plastic container and scrubbed the cutting board at the sink, her large, bony fingers gripping and turning it under the running water. At sixty-seven, nervous energy seemed to exit from her crinkly, salt and pepper hair and ripple outward. Even a hairnet couldn’t contain the vigorous upsweep of her curls, and she habitually tugged at the edge of the net, pulling it over her forehead, giving her features a sullen cast. Under the hairnet her brown eyes seemed to focus on distant vistas, a place that seemed to exert an irresistible pull on her attention. For the last few weeks, while autumn edged closer to winter, Lupe had been issuing frequent updates on her brother-in law’s slow decline. And if that weren’t enough, a murder suicide in a nearby town, or a niece’s aneurysm worked its way into every morning conversation. “She was only thirty,” Lupe might say, as she stirred the gravy for the biscuits. Or, “He ran off the road and hit a tree,” with a shake of her head, her hands busy rearranging the breakfast sandwiches under the heat lamps. She remained sketchy on details, shrugging off Rene’s need for the facts, as if they only obscured the view to the graveyard. Rene preferred to hear about death from the newspaper, at arm’s length, with her morning coffee. And after, she could do the crossword puzzle at the cash register as hungry people surged all around like a living storm.

The only other person in the college cafeteria this early in the morning kept her back turned from the conversation, moving a large mound of scrambled eggs over the surface of a large, age-darkened grill. Virginia stayed grounded to the here and now, life and death could take a hike, thank you very much. Rene was a little afraid of Virginia, who was close to retirement and still as sturdy and inscrutable as an oak. Something in her posture suggested she was listening to Lupe—head tilted just so, a glint of light off her glasses. Virginia seemed to come from a different age, the set of her shoulders, the angle of her mouth hinted at a self-sufficient life—at a steep price. She’d spent the greater part of her youth working for the Forest Service as a cook.   She sometimes spoke of hiking into the “backcountry” and cooking for the “Hotshots” who battled the wildfires in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. Now, surrounded by stainless steel and tile, Rene wondered if Virginia missed the sound of the wind rushing through the pines and the shriek of scrub jays as they flapped across sunlit meadows.

The old cafeteria kitchen felt cave-like with dawn only a suggestion in the east. Each morning the three women labored in quick silence: the Hag the Matron, and the Maiden. Rene’s imagination had them bent over a cauldron, or studying the threads of their destinies. Later, the kitchen would fill with the rest of the full-time staff, and a few student workers earning their way through college. The cloistered aura, the feel of mysteries held at bay would dissipate as the three moved to their respective stations.

“I hope to drop dead myself, someday,” Rene said—no maiden. “Or maybe I’ll park my car in the garage and turn on the engine.” She was angling for the shock factor but no one seemed to be buying it.   Virginia continued to poke at her eggs, her spade-like spatula held at an insouciant angle, and Lupe hurried off in the direction of the storeroom, body angled forward as if fighting a stiff wind. Rene grabbed a nearby cart and pushed it into the walk-in refrigerator; she thought she heard a soft snort come from the direction of the grill. She gathered apples and bottles of milk, butter and cream cheese for the serving area and hurried out of the cold, dim confines of the walk-in. So like the claustrophobic weather outside the cafeteria. She thought about how thick and wet the fog had been on her drive to work that morning, twenty miles with the windshield wipers doing their best to whisk away the cloying damp. It seemed that death had been in the passenger seat like a car-pool companion, a reminder that a missed stop sign or a screech of tires and life could burn away like fog in the sun.

“I had a dream about Daniel the other night,” Lupe said to Rene, a couple of minutes later in the serving area. She was standing behind the steam table, a pan of bacon in her hands, her hair deflated and a little sad in the moist air. “Me and you were in jail but at work too. There was lots of graffiti on the walls, the walls of the cell…I saw big letters, big…going all across the wall. I knew it was a message from Daniel. I tried to read it, but I couldn’t. It must have been important…but I couldn’t read it.”

“What can the dead have to say to the living?” Rene asked, suddenly tired. It was almost seven, almost time to open the floodgates and let in the hungry and the thirsty. They would take what they needed and hand Rene their money. They would hurry off, anxious to get where they were going, wondering perhaps whether they would have enough time to get it all done. Rene wondered the same thing late at night, or on the drive to work in the pre-dawn hours when an owl might sweep across the road in search of food. She was forty-two, the same age as Daniel, the former night cook here at work, these last two years dead of cancer.

Rene was pretty sure that a ghost had taken up residence in the new restroom in the remodeled student services building, adjacent to the community college cafeteria. Having worked there for nearly twenty years, Rene couldn’t imagine where the ghost might have come from, never once hearing of any untimely deaths in the vicinity of the restroom. The ghost was a lost girl, of this Rene was certain. She was a girl who had followed a course out of ignorance or willfulness like the young sometimes do, and severed herself from her family. How she had met her end was less clear. For once, the details seemed not to matter to Rene.

It must have been a year or so after the completion of the remodel that Rene caught a glimpse of her ghost in stall number one, the one closest to the entrance. There appeared to be a young girl, a teenager, sitting in there, head down, and long dark hair unraveling across her face. She seemed caved in on herself, feet splayed, knees together, elbows and shoulders pulled toward her center. Rene saw all this from the corner of her eye, not directly, no, never directly. Rene just knew she was there. One only felt ghosts after all, a vibration in the air. Light itself seemed to have trouble penetrating that dim recess, and people just hurried past it. There were plenty of other stalls. Rene didn’t know what one could expect in a Men’s room, but Women’s restrooms had always seemed to be secretive places where unwanted babies might be delivered and discarded, eating disorders concealed, or fevered cell phone argument between classes. It made sense that a ghost might find refuge in one.

That morning, after the first breakfast rush had subsided, Rene strolled through the main dining room and stepped between the sliding glass doors into the student center. A portable folding divider bisected the light, airy atrium where display cases holding trophies, old yearbooks, photos of bygone sports teams and other memorabilia lined the length of the walkway. She walked past the faded blue divider covered with vividly colored posters about enrollment information, sexually transmitted diseases, transfer information, intramural sports teams, and all manner of student concerns. She tried to ignore them all, belonging as she did to the underbelly of the campus, one of the many staff that saw to the non-academic needs of the institution.

In the restroom, the rust and ochre tiles formed geometric patterns across the beige walls. Air whispered through the ceiling ducts, stirring the dead, faintly-vomit-tinged air. Rene felt the presence of her ghost on the tiny hairs of her forearms and in the sighing, echoing silence. The voices of students, hanging around the computers stationed just outside the door, seemed to come from across an abyss, a timeless space that separated Rene from them as firmly as a membrane between universes. They would move on, immersed in the college experience of studies, new experiences, changing vistas.   Like a boulder in a stream, Rene watched them rush past, only to be replaced by new faces, creating the illusion of eternal youth, and the notion that they would never shoulder the adult responsibilities that she had taken on at sixteen.

She paused before the one of the mirrors above the sinks. As usual, rogue strands of brown hair waved fine tendrils in the feeble currents of air like inquisitive anemone. A tired ponytail kept the bulk of her hair at bay, the same look she had had for decades. She had been considering chopping it all off for a long time, but she feared change, and how people would perceive her. Would she look butch, old? Her face was too round, her eyes too squinty, she would regret it—better to stay the course, stick to the safe path. People told her she had a nice smile, but the picture on her employee ID showed a woman no longer young, with a forced, rueful you-caught-me smile. “Why so grim?” she whispered to her reflection, “Move on or suck it up. You’re not a prisoner here.” Maybe it was the lighting over the sinks, but she looked faded. An old linen shirt, ready for the rag bin.

She settled in the stall furthest from number one and immediately the toilet in the ghost’s stall flushed, set off by the motion sensor near the bowl. Or maybe someone else was in another stall, but Rene didn’t think so, all the doors stood ajar, no feet evident within. “I don’t want to talk today,” she whispered.

After work, the December sun illuminated the fog that had never really lifted. The day had a timeless quality with no shadows cast to anchor the observer, no way to inform the traveler through time, or distance, where they were. Rene drove past the cemetery located next to the river on the border between the town and the farms, which were the economic lifeblood of the area. Fog had already begun to touch the tops of the gravestones, blurring the outlines of leafless trees and distorting Rene’s perspective, so the gravestones in the furthest reaches of the cemetery seemed to float on a sea of grey like buoys sweeping out to sea. An old man, one she had seen almost daily for the last year, sat in his folding chair next to a grave, looking off into the fog, a lonely lighthouse keeper on duty. Some day she thought she might stop and ask him—what? His devotion was clear—to his wife Rene assumed. A walker stood next to his chair, evidence of the difficulty it took to get there and his frailty. Maybe he talked to her, told her about his day, about how much he missed her. Maybe he asked her forgiveness, for working long hours, eating too many meals without a thank you, for letting the moments of their marriage slip by unnoticed. Her father lay buried in a different section of the cemetery, a place she rarely visited. They hadn’t spoken to each other that much in life. What could she say to him now? How could something so final as death leave so much unresolved? Rene drove south toward home, plowing through the fog with unwavering concentration.

Daniel had come to work in the cafeteria at a time when many of the old staff were on their way out. He had been hired to replace a woman named Ruby, the night cook who, it was rumored, pillaged meat, eggs, and anything else she could tuck into her capacious handbag. Rene remembered Daniel from high school although they had run in different circles. She with the low status girls who affected cool indifference to dances they were never invited to and he with the football players that traveled in packs across campus with that particular, bouncing jock walk.

He had gone to culinary school but cooked hamburgers and French fries all day, a role that seemed to frustrate him. He banged and slammed around the grill area, singing along to a battered old radio that he kept tuned to an oldies station, wrapping his space in a barrier of discordant sounds. He had the bulky, slack build of an out-of-shape football player, his bouncing walk replaced with the plodding gait of a much older man.   Sweat beaded his scalp amid the thinning brush of his sandy hair. The strings of his apron barely met, evidence of his love of food and beer. He worked, surrounded by women, a Jock on an all girls team. He had a talent for stirring up trouble, born of boredom or simple malice.

Resentments in different pockets of the cafeteria simmered. The Baker was jealous of the Cook’s pay, the Sandwich/ Salad lady wondered why the cashiers got to stand around all day. Daniel listened and passed it all along with the earnest, wide-eyed air of a confidante, a man who had your back.   What struck Rene the most after he had died was how still the waters had become, how they closed over his head with barely a ripple. There would always be drama in the cafeteria. The Baker still brooded in the bakery, one cashier continued to work on her crossword puzzles while the Sandwich/Salad lady glowered at her through the kitchen doorway, and they carried on, minus one.

The last time Rene saw Daniel he was standing in the kitchen, peering through the window where food was passed from the kitchen to the serving area. It was to be his last day for six weeks following surgery for the removal of a cyst in his lower back. He seemed buoyed by the prospect of so much time off, as if a long painful recovery was a small price to pay to get away from work.

“So have you talked to your ghost lately?” Virginia said. She asked without a trace of mockery, a trait Rene appreciated. It was a couple of days after Lupe’s hospice pronouncement about her brother-law, and they had come outside to watch the moon set, a great silver satellite accompanied by Venus, making a stately exit in the west. They stood at the back entrance where the deliverymen parked to unload milk, produce, paper goods and bread. At this early hour, it was sometimes possible to break away from their daily tasks and take a moment to dawdle. Sometimes, depending on the season, they would troop outside—always Virginia’s idea—to watch the sunrise or a storm sweep in from the north.

“I…we don’t exactly talk,” Rene said.

“My husband’s aunt had a ghost in her house,” said Lupe. She twisted a towel in her hands, clearly anxious to get back inside and chop something up. “She never talked to it…I think it scared her. She said sometimes it came out when she was cooking like it was watching her cook. I could never live with that!”

Virginia turned to Rene, “Has she told how she died? How she ended up here?” The last of the moonlight gilded Virginia’s hair, dyed red this month. Rene hesitated, unwilling to talk about her ghost, as if she might invoke her presence, call her up from that timeless place, bring her into the last dying rays of the moon.

“She’s tired of being here,” Rene said. “She wants to leave, but she’s afraid of where she’ll end up.”

Virginia laughed, “It turns out the dead aren’t so different from us.”

“My husband’s aunt said she saw the ghost in her garden once,” Lupe said. “It was at sunset, not too dark. She was staring at the chilies his aunt had planted in her garden.” Lupe twisted her towel even tighter, making the sinews on her forearms bulge. “So next time she cooked dinner, she put some food on a plate with the chilies and left it on the counter for the ghost.” Lights from distant houses glimmered in the frosty air beyond the baseball field, and coyotes yipped from the nearby river.

“What should I leave my ghost?” Rene asked. “All the teenage girls like hot Cheetos and soda, even for breakfast. What gets me is, it’s always the skinny ones who do that” They all shook their heads, as if skinny girls posed just as much of a conundrum as ghosts.

“Daniel might come back some day,” Virginia said, eyes cutting back into the cafeteria where the warm light shining inside looked increasingly compelling to Rene. “He’ll rattle some pots and pans, turn up the ovens and bark orders at us.” She seemed to be making an effort to keep her tone light, but in the gloom and solitude of the deserted campus, it seemed possible that he might slouch out of the darkest corners of the cafeteria and pick up a spatula.

“Daniel was a shit and nobody misses him…that’s the sad truth. Anyway, we can appease his spirit with a cute student worker,” Rene said. There was a short silence. His inclination to take a pretty girl under his wing every semester had not gone unnoticed by the other women in the cafeteria. “I wanted him gone,” she continued, “But, what a way to go.” She couldn’t help but glance at Virginia, who had survived her own nasty bout of cancer a dozen years ago. Rene knew all the details; the older doctor had initially written Virginia off and sent her home to die. The new, young doctor with a determined outlook and a better grasp of all the new treatments. Virginia had battled it alone, driving herself home from chemo and collapsing on her bed to sleep for eighteen hours.   For years Rene had been waiting for Virginia to issue some bits of wisdom, some grand vision of what it felt like to go toe to toe with death, to thumb her nose at the old doctor, tweak his goatee. Instead, Virginia chose to remodel the cabin in the mountains she had inherited from her parents, trade flower bulbs with Rene, and plow ahead like a motorist in the fog, not knowing what lay up the road but trusting she would get to her destination in due time.

 

Rene had washed up on this particular shore almost twenty years ago after working at a series of minimum wage jobs, each one more depressing than the last. There was the night job at a sandwich shop, owned by a beefy, red-faced bully who enjoyed belittling and cursing at the employees at the monthly meetings he called, presumably to curse and belittle them. She had always been able find work at the local fruit-packing houses, sorting good fruit from bad—running a box-making machine, working on the scales making sure the boxes were neither too full nor too light, or running quality control. And once, an awful year at an Old Folks Home in the kitchen as a tray setter, responsible for assembling each resident’s food tray with the appropriate condiments, plus cereals and juices for breakfast, and prepping for the next day. When the word came down that Mr. Smith, or Mrs. Jones no longer needed a tray, well, it was a somber day. These were the only jobs she could find as a high school dropout with a night-school diploma. A pregnancy at sixteen and her subsequent ejection from home by her father had sent her into the world with scant resources. She determined never to accept help from him, and, although never fully acknowledged in her mind, never to forgive him. She had disappointed and shamed him and she understood that the responsibility rested with her, and her wild ways, sneaking out of the house at night, ditching school. Her job at the college became an act of revenge, a way to show him how little she needed him, how little time she had for him. Her father, an illiterate farmworker, had fulfilled his dream of coming to America from the Philippines to work, marry, raise a family, and own a home. The dream had soured in the aftermath of Rene’s mother’s mental illness, his failing eyesight and the crush of poverty that forced his family into welfare. Her pregnancy seemed to hasten his withdrawal from this disappointing world, and this responsibility she shouldered as well.

 

Late in the morning with the moon viewing several hours past, Lupe called to Rene from the behind the steam table, “I have a phone call, I’ll be right back.” Rene finished counting change back to a middle-aged woman named Rhonda, who had told Rene that sometimes she slept in her car overnight in the school parking lot to save gas and that she had almost set her ex-husband on fire while he slept after a particularly vicious beating. Lupe’s voice barely registered amid the clamor of customers asking Rene if they could substitute salad for soup, or if somebody could fill the empty ketchup dispenser, and why the prices were so high? The constant onslaught of people had become, in the last few years, like a daylong gauntlet she had to run, head tucked under upraised arms. She had nearly run out of survival strategies and relied on crossword puzzles, daydreams and her music playing behind the soda fountain to sustain her throughout the day. At home she read books, dug around her flower garden and rode her bicycle into the nearby hills, trying to scrub the accumulation of calcified human need off her ever thickening skin. Once she had gone an entire weekend without speaking to anyone. She remembered probing her feelings about it like a sore tooth and could only recall a feeling of satisfaction, never to be repeated. Her father had retreated into an isolation of his own, blind and nearly deaf at the end, sitting on a rusted kitchen chair in the backyard of his house, an old Filipino man, much diminished amid the abandoned beanpoles and yellowing vines of his garden. With her son out of college and pursuing his own dreams in another city, Rene felt herself increasingly seduced by the same isolation that had swallowed her father.

When Lupe returned, Rene knew by the desolate look on her face that the brother-in-law had died. “I’ll be gone for three days. My sister needs help with the arrangements.” Lupe sounded distant, her hands finally still as they lay on top of the cutting board next to the burrito bar. “The student workers know what to do. I showed them how to turn everything on…the heat lamps, the steam table.” Her mouth trembled and she looked away.

“Call me if you need something,” Rene said, groping for the right words, unsure how much support Lupe needed for the loss of someone she seemed to dislike.

“My sister said it was peaceful, no pain, no fear…I’m so glad. I meant to visit one more time…meant to tell him,” Lupe hesitated, “tell him everything turned out okay, in the end.” She seemed unable to move, as if all her kinetic energy had finally depleted itself.

Rene felt she had missed something vital. “I thought you couldn’t stand him,” she said. “I thought he treated your sister like a servant…he was cold. You said….”

“Shut up! You shut your mouth!” Lupe’s voice broke and her hands flew up in a warding off gesture.   “What do you know?   Who do you care about? My sister is alone now…and…I didn’t hate him. I saw him first.” Rene stumbled back a little, shaken by the hot words spilling out of Lupe’s lips.

“I don’t understand…you saw him… when? He just passed away and you’re yelling at me.” Rene wanted to walk away, screw Lupe and her drama, just one more reason to stay out of all this turmoil.

“I saw him first.” Lupe said. “When I was fifteen and he was seventeen. I saw him first at a baseball game. He was the pitcher…so straight and tall, his hair so black. Rene imagined Lupe, slender and fresh, lips red as flower petals, and she reached out to grip Lupe’s elbow, to steady them both.

“It’s now or never,” Rene whispered, in the stall next to her ghost. Her voice seemed to echo in the tiled expanse, sibilant and low. “I mean, is this what you want? If it is…well, stay here. Listen to the girls talk about their boyfriends and their periods and how much they hate their hair. It’s up to you.” A shuffle and a sigh and the papery rustle of the toilet seat covers traveled across the tiny space between the two stalls. “Yeah, it’s scary, but haven’t you been through worse? You didn’t have time to live… you didn’t get the college experience, whatever that means. You chose limbo because you thought it was what you deserved.” It seemed imperative that Rene communicate to the ghost just how costly some decisions could be, how they could span a lifetime, and beyond. A faucet began to run, and in the tiled space, it seemed to rush like a river, skirting the college and snaking through the tangled vineyards and the orchards of peaches, oranges, and almonds that surrounded the town. Rene imagined it joining hundreds of creeks and rivers, cutting through the coastal range, and ending its journey in the salty estuaries at the edge of the sea. “Go home,” she whispered, “Come home.”   It was late afternoon and Rene’s shift had finally ended, nothing left to do but drive into the fog which had already begun to descend and head home to Angus McPhail, who would weave between her ankles and meow for his dinner.

Rene exited the college parking lot and merged into the flow of traffic heading south. It was cold, colder than it had been all winter with the days nearing their shortest lengths of the year and the sun hanging low and impotent in the fog. Rene cranked the heater as high as it would go and still the chill seemed to sink into her bones. She drove past the public pool and the stately old homes along the river with their wide porches and empty flowerbeds under the bare branches of enormous oak and elm trees.

It was hard to see, hard to drive into the murk and the unknown, the headlights illuminating so little, only enough to move you a little farther along. But how would she get home if she didn’t keep moving forward. Would she sleep in her car like Rhonda?

At the stop sign near the cemetery she stopped and waited for a school bus to trundle past, and as she started through the intersection, a red pickup, the kind raised up high on enormous wheels, blew through going the opposite direction from the bus. Rene slammed on her brakes, feeling the car shudder beneath her. The pickup sailed by and disappeared into the fog. She drove a little way, her heart laboring painfully in her chest, and rolled to a stop in front of the cemetery to wait for the adrenaline in her system to subside.

The damn heater blew at full blast and still the cold intensified. It would never be warm again it seemed, she would carry it in her like a frozen heart. Through the moisture-beaded windshield she made out the shape of the old man among the gravestones, turned in her direction. Had he come out in this horrible weather to visit his wife again? But he was in the wrong section.   Had he lost his way? She strained to catch a better glimpse of him in the shifting mists but the windows had fogged up despite the defroster’s best efforts, and somehow she knew that the man she had seen had been waiting for her, had always been waiting for her. Would he listen to her if she met him there, surrounded by the stone angels and the regret? Would they understand each other like they never had in life? The hair on her forearms began to rise and the cold sighed and shifted on her right in the passenger seat. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I forgive you. Do you forgive me?”

 

About the author

Betty Kemp is an almost thirty-year food services worker at Reedley College and a lifelong reader. She recently revived her love for writing by coming back to school, taking fiction writing and literature classes during the past two years. She plans to continue writing and taking more classes.

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