“The sun is shining and the sky is blue clear to Jesus,” my wife’s mother Wanda said as we drove to the church on the day of her husband’s funeral. I looked back at her and noticed the grimace of lipstick painted on her face like she had applied it in the dark.
We had flown down to Georgia the day before and spent a long hot night in the old house where Doreen grew up. Now, in the unrelenting heat of the graveyard Wanda looked up from under her black veil and watched dark birds in the trees.
Herb Stafford’s flag-draped coffin was lowered into the ground on that sunny hillside, and the two peroxide blonde women cried their tears almost in synchronicity. They both had identically slender figures, which was not surprising since Wanda had been an athletic instructor at the county gym since before Doreen was born.
We got into the car, the women sitting in the backseat, and I drove Herb’s ancient Olds 88 back to the house. They didn’t talk or even do anymore sniffling. Wanda looked out the window and Doreen kept patting her hand.
Herb was an affable but sickly fellow. We had only visited Georgia a few times since we had been married, but I would always play golf with his son Bo while Herb watched us from the motorized cart sipping some kind of “tonic” from a flask.
“Golf is an equalizer,” Herb would call from the cart.
“Don’t I know it, Pop,” Bo would say smiling in a goofy way.
Bo was not home for the funeral; he was away in Singapore “on business” and couldn’t fly back for it. After all the time Doreen and I were married, I still had no idea what her brother did for a living.
Wanda sipped black coffee from a mug with a beach scene painted on it. She lit a cigarette, sat down, crossed those still lovely sixty year old legs, and shook her head. “Herb and I were going to move to Hawaii. That was his dream and what he always wanted.”
Doreen said, “I didn’t know that, Mamma.”
Wanda turned to look out the window. “Anyway, that was his dream, my poor Herb.”
Doreen crossed her legs – long and lovely like her mother’s – and lit a cigarette. In our nine years together, two dating and seven married, I had never seen Doreen smoking. She blew some smoke out of her mouth sideways like a veteran puffer. “Mamma, you could still have his dream. You should go.”
“Oh, that’s the silliest thing, Dor. I mean, I can’t go alone like that?”
“Why not?” Doreen squealed, her eyebrows getting those little kinks in them like when we argued or our four year old Billy spilled his juice.
Later that day I went for a walk in the pale long dusk. The lush green branches of the trees along the road shook against the vibrant violet sky. The dark birds from the cemetery seemed to be following me, alighting in branches and then flying up ahead as I went along. When I returned to the house about an hour later, it was dark and Doreen sat in the glow of the porch lamp on the old swing.
“Sit down, Ray,” Doreen said, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.
“Since when did you take up smoking?” I asked as I sat on the swing.
“I used to smoke, but you were always complaining about smokers when I met you, so I just didn’t do it around you. By the time we got married, I had quit.” She threw the cigarette off into the darkness and lit another one. “Ray, I want a divorce.”
I felt totally numb; I could only manage “What?” in a low mumble.
“I don’t love you anymore, and life is too damn short.” She got up, walked to the porch railing, and looked off into the darkness. The crickets were buzzing in the night and frogs down by the pond were bellowing under the moon. “I’m moving to Hawaii with Mamma.”
“What about Billy?”
“You’re always saying ‘He’s my pride and joy’ and all that, so why don’t you take care of him for a spell and see if you can be proud and happy with him?”
I took the first flight home the next morning and picked up Billy at my mother’s apartment in Queens. Mom turned away from the steaming pot on the stove, pressing her squat fingers against her apron with bright lemons and the word “Sicilia” sewn on it. “Sonny, where is your wife?”
“Hey, Daddy,” Billy squealed as he ran into the kitchen and hugged my legs at the knees.
I leaned down, kissed Billy on the forehead, and looked up at my mother. “Not now, Mom.”
She wound the end of her apron in her still strong hands and turned away from me to stir her sauce. “I always warned you about that one.”
Billy and I returned to our house on the south shore of Long Island and played together all day and ate dinner. He only asked about his mommy once when he went to bed. I told him that she had to take care of Grandma Wanda for a while, and he seemed to understand.
I sat on the porch drinking a beer and watching the ocean. I still had no idea why golf was an equalizer, and I didn’t know what “sky is blue clear to Jesus” meant either. There were so many things I didn’t know or understand about Doreen and her family. One day Billy will want to know their story, but I didn’t even know where to begin, and how would I ever explain why his mother went to Hawaii?
I sat there all night drinking, listening to the crash of waves, and watching the moon shatter the sea like a pale hammer on black glass.
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