"The Full Moon"
by E. A. Petrick
He'd gone to his grandmother's room, at six-thirty in the morning, as usual, to wake her up and tell her that he'd be home late because of a staff meeting, and found the time had come. That's what she used to say these last couple of years, in a way of complaining about the human lifespan.
Even before he touched the cheek, scored with so many lines it looked like art, a page torn out of abstract artist's sketchbook, he knew her complaint had finally been answered. She was ninety-eight years old and did not want to live to have three digits to represent her age. It just wasn't decent, she'd say. Her last paycheck, from a sweatshop down in the garment district where she'd worked for twenty-one years until retiring, only to continue running her own home-based sewing business, was only seventy-nine dollars. She had outlived the amount of her last official paycheck by nearly twenty years and that just wasn't decent. God had a dark sense of humor.
Pernello sat down on the floor, next to the bed, and reached up to gently take the hand that had cared for him since birth. He'd long stopped squeezing her hand in reassurance. When the family came to the new country, at forty-eight and a widow, she'd already had a touch of arthritis in her finger joints. It didn't stop her from going to work in the dressmaking factory, pushing the fabric under the steel foot moving with a berserk speed, jamming the needle in to stitch garments she could never afford to buy retail.
He was three years old when they came over on a big boat, and the youngest of four children, the only boy. The war was barely over. The old country was in economic and political turmoil and the new land promised much hope. His mother was twenty-eight, his father thirty. In the fifties, women still stayed home to look after the children. But a family of seven, where only three out of seven were adults, could not afford such luxury. The adults went to work - the women in factories, the man in construction. The children went to the babysitter, a neighbor who made a living out of caring for kids of working parents.
Five years later Pernello's father fell off a scaffold, and injured his back badly enough not to be able to do any heavy-duty work. Four years later, he died of a heart attack. By then, they'd bought a house in the Oakwood area, one of the narrow, peak-roofed brownstones with three stories and a dark concrete-walled basement.
"We will manage," Nona had said to her eldest daughter, as Pernello's mother sat wild-eyed in the kitchen, shocked by the sudden tragedy and its dark portends. "Nello will help down at the macelleria. They need boys to clean up the shop and wrap up orders. Don't worry. They won't let him cut up the meat. No harm will come to him. Franco and Vincenzo will help too. We'll manage."
His uncles had just gotten married and even a twelve-year old boy could figure out that newly-married men, starting families, would not be in position to help out - much.
But she was right. They managed to keep the house and eat hot supper every night. Nona made uncle Frank and uncle Vince clean up a part of the basement and set it up as a sewing area. She started to make dresses for people who'd come in through the side entrance, though there wasn't anything illegal about her enterprise; just that she thought customers using the side door was more proper, business-like.
He wasn't much interested in street hockey, even if he had time after school and work at the meat market, and liked to spend what little free time he had at home, usually in the basement, where she worked. His three older sisters were already in high school, thinking about boyfriends, and when Nona was within earshot, talking about studies and college. That's what she insisted on - education, education, education.
"First, get the bread in your hand," she used to say to them. "Then when you know you have something that will feed you, and take you far in the world, think about men."
His sisters would lower their heads, hiding their eyes so they would not betray what they thought of such "wisdom", delivered in heavily accented English, but they dared not disagree with Nona.
He'd come downstairs to where she sat hunched over her sewing machine, the naked yellow light bulb overhead framing her within its cone of light, as if indeed it was her stage and she the soloist, and sit down and do his homework until she finished the noisy "machine part" of her work and started stitching and basting by hand.
She'd look over at his notebook and say, "You write so many numbers, Nello. Are any of them good?"
He would look up, grin at her and hastily flip the pages to show her all the As he'd received on his tests. Sometimes he'd read to her, out loud, short stories or novels that his sisters took up in class. His own reading material, about Auk of the North, bored him. Shakespeare to her was "fantazzia", Dickens - depressing.
"Why do these people write about drunks, peasants and fools who jump up and down on the ice, trying to fall through?" she'd ask, shaking her head, when he'd read to her some of Hardy's works.
At thirteen, he had no answer yet, and later on when he did, he realized she didn't need it. She'd lived through two world wars. To her, anyone deliberately trying to end his life, when still in its prime, was incomprehensible. She was born in a tiny village, Adrano, in northern Alpine Lombardy region, the same place that in this lifetime would appear on his official documents as his birthplace.
"We had soldiers come through our town," she'd say when he stopped to have a snack of biscotti and chocolate milk. "Doesn't matter what army, they were all the same. They came in like waters in flood, took everything they could find, ate everything that didn't run away and left without as much as waving a hand, or wiping their greasy chins. They were pigs, all of them. No matter what language they spoke, they all said the same thing: Give me this, give me that."
"Did you ever say no?" he'd ask.
She'd stare at him above the black rim of her glasses and smile. "They never put their guns down. Not even to say grace. I could write better stories than that man who likes blood and bulls," she said when he'd read her some of Hemingway's works. "He sees war his way and he's got good eyes, but that's one thing you can't lift to stare at the soldiers who come to your house. You look elsewhere for answers," she'd finish cryptically.
When he was fifteen, Hemingway's works were actually on his class reading list. Since he hardly ever needed to read anything twice to retain the story, he'd bring down his evening snack to her sewing nook and reverse the role.
"What was it like, during the first war and the second one?" he'd ask. "Where did you look for answers?"
She'd poke a finger at the age-blackened beams in the low ceiling. "Up, where there is plenty of light, at least once a month."
"God?" he felt disappointed that it would be so obvious and simple.
"No. He's never there when people go crazy with guns and bombs. In the first war, when I was about your age, I'd go to sit in church, what there was left of it after they hit it with shells and the beams burned for days, they were so thick, but only because it was shady inside and cool in the summertime. Whenever we hear there were soldiers coming down the mountain paths, heading for the town, I'd go to sit on the wall that your great-grandfather built around the bread ovens in the orchard. Sometimes I'd have to wait a few days for the sky to clear, but...."
"Did the soldiers ever hurt you...or great-grandma?" he interrupted, because somehow she never cleared up this part, no matter how many hardships she had told him about, no mater which war she'd recall.
She smiled. "There were lookouts, posted in the mountains, along the paths to town. When the news came that a new bunch of soldiers were heading our way, all the women in town would hide their daughters, either in lofts or attics or down in stone cellars. Sometimes the soldiers were too quick and it didn't work out," she'd pause and her eyes behind the glass would swirl with dark memories he knew she'd not share, "but most of the time, the soldiers just wanted food and stole everything they could. My mother lost all her fine linen that way, and the silver cutlery she got as part of her dowry. Some soldiers were not so bad. None had manners but some listened to orders. So when my mother saw there was an officer in charge, she'd let us come out of the fruit cellar. We had much work to do, you know. We couldn't stay hiding - and reading, like you and your sisters do," she'd finish with a strangely mischievous laughter, as light as it must have sounded half a century ago.
"So it wasn't so bad after all," he teased back.
She looked at him and he felt that no words would ever be able to truthfully describe what she'd lived through and what it felt like to live in fear, hide when the word came that the soldiers were coming, or the anguish of decision whether to come out of hiding or not.
"Not when I'd go and sit on the stone wall by the ovens, and look up at the sky, knowing that there was a better world up there - clean, shiny - the Luna, the full face of the moon."
"The moon's not a world. It's a dead satellite," he'd blurted out. She wasn't offended.
"It's a beautiful clean, shining world to me and always has been. I'd watch it make faces and it spoke to me in pictures. It told me when I was safe and that things would be all right."
It took him a few more years to understand what she'd been saying and what the bright orb of the full moon represented to her - it's where she'd placed her hopes, her beliefs, instead in the invisible god who had let his shrine of worship burn down - destroyed by man. The light of the distant moon reached to her soul and if not healed, then at least soothed her fears for whatever moment in time she sought such solace. The moon was her oasis of safety, her fantasy spinner - her prophet. At the time, when she could no longer place her trust in fellow human being, when she could not even count on her family and kin to protect her, the moon's silver visage gave her that which she needed - the pure and clean illusion of safety in a world torn apart by insanity.
Her paycheck from the garment factory and her cash income from home-sewing, put him and his sisters through college and when she finally retired at sixty-eight, since they let her stay three more years, without carrying her on payroll and paying her cash, he was twenty-five, teaching high school math in the city, and about to marry. His mother died six months after he married Marina and without as much as asking his new wife whether she'd agree or not, he went back to the Oakwood neighborhood to live in the house and share it with Nona. She'd have never agreed to it had he actually said: take care of her. A year later, when his oldest son was born, it was Nona who suggested that perhaps a yard might be a good thing to have instead of the back lane they had, now that the children were once again in the picture. At sixty-nine, her health was remarkably robust, though no one believed it since she was so petite, so fragile.
They moved into a bigger house, with a decent backyard, though his neighbors were still only ten feet away on either side. It was a good middle-class area, the kind he knew Nona would like. He'd divided the money from the sale of his parents' Oakwood house four ways, to be fair to his sisters, and though Nona had contributed as much as his mother, perhaps more, to the mortgage, she'd never asked to be a part-owner on paper. She came to the new country a widow, accompanying her eldest child who in her opinion needed her help the most. That's all she'd expected from life, and he'd never heard her say a word of disappointment.
The new house had a small wooden deck in the back. The first night they've spent there after moving in, Nona went outside on the deck for what would become for her not just a ritual, but also a religious ceremony, once a month, each and every year for the next twenty-eight years.
It was a hot and humid July night. The air was a blanket, stitched from mosquitoes. He'd gone outside to tell her that it wasn't a good idea to stay out for long.
"Look up there, Nello," she interrupted him, pointing at the sky. He obeyed and saw a full glaring moon, flaunting its cool golden face with traces of antique crackle. She continued, "When I die, I want to spend my last night above ground out here, under that moon."
He'd laughed. "You'll live to be a hundred and aren't you the one who's always telling me that you can't pick things like death and your kids' personality?"
"I will die the night when that moon is up and full, just like the one you see," she declared uncompromisingly.
"I'm going to have a hell of a time trying to wake up once a month, on the night of the full moon, to go check on you, whether you're still breathing," he'd joked.
"And you will bury me two days later, at night, when the moon's already waning," she lowered her head and stared at him, her expression sharp and clear in the abundant light of the huge moon.
"Will you come inside now if I say yes?"
She gave him a brisk nod. "You promise to respect and honor my last wish, Nello?"
"I promise. Now will you come inside before the mosquitoes eat you alive?"
Pernello unfocused from inward gazing and gently released the cool and already slightly stiff hand of the woman who'd cared for her family all her life. She had been granted a wish and died before her age turned into a three-digit number. However, she had also died fourteen days too early for him to fulfill his promise. And that was the problem he'd dimly perceived nearly thirty years ago when he'd made the vow.
"Couldn't you have stayed with me two more weeks?" he whispered, grieving not so much for her death because she had welcomed such relief from the burden of life, but because it placed on him the seemingly insurmountable problem of how to make the world spin faster to cover two weeks in ten hours, so he could give his grandmother her last wish, while her body was still above ground, and spend the night under the full moon. He knew he'd have problems getting the clergy out to the cemetery in the middle of the night, and the undertaker might do more than just flinch upon hearing such unorthodox request, but it could be done. In this day and age of pet cemeteries, surely holding a graveside service for a human being in the middle of the night was not such an outlandish proposition?
However, holding on to Nona for fourteen more days, until the night of the full moon arrived, hopefully without clouds or rain, was not merely outlandish or eccentric - it was insane - and against the law. It was an early July and reasonable to assume that it might not rain two weeks down the calendar, but still...
Of course, he already had her final resting place, or to be exact, the vessel she'd chosen herself to hold her body - the casket. Three years ago, after a bout of flu, she made him sit down in the kitchen, fixed him a glass of chocolate milk and put a plate of biscotti in front of him. Then she said, "I want to pick out my casket."
His hand holding the glass of chocolate milk, rising to his lips halted, as did the rest of his thoughts.
"Well, either drink it or put it down, Nello. Don't spill it, that's waste," she admonished him. "I want to see what you're going to put me into when I die."
"You don't trust me to make the right choice?" He put down the glass and eventually she'd poured it back into the container and replaced it in the fridge.
"I want to pick out my own casket," she insisted.
He suspected that cost was the main motivating factor and didn't argue, though cost was certainly not an issue anymore. He could get her a granite sarcophagus, if that's what she wanted.
"Fine. I'll make an appointment at the funeral home and you can pick a casket you like. They'll hold it for you."
"It comes with me," she said.
He leaned forward, pushing the tray with biscotti aside. "What comes with you and where?"
"When I pick out my casket and pay for it, it comes with me - here, home."
It took him a week to confirm what he told her at great length that night - caskets were chosen well in advance of the final event, but these remained at the funeral home - stored.
"Then I will get someone to build me one," she declared.
He knew that she was very much capable of calling uncle Frank, the man of many talents that yielded not only sales commissions but also fines and a supervised parole ten years ago, and told her he'd go back to the funeral home and try to appeal their verdict.
"Well, I suppose if you brought me a doctor's note, indicating that your grandmother's wish should be observed, due to her mental and physical condition... if it would make the patient calm and comfortable," the funeral director at Morgan's Funeral Home started hesitantly, furrowing his brow with professional disapproval.
He leaped up, reached across the desk and shook the startled man's hand then ran out.
"Is there anything wrong with you that you might want to see a doctor?" he asked her, when he came home that night.
"Not a thing," she replied, scowling at him. "I've had arthritis since I can remember but it's not that bad these days."
"Make it as bad as it can be," he told her. "And the only thing that will make it get better is if Dr. Stanley gives you a note that having a casket at home will relax you and you won't forget to take your medication."
"You're a smart boy, Nello," she said, tapping his cheek lightly. "Make the appointment. I need new glasses and I can't see those little numbers on the phone anymore."
They spent half an hour in Dr. Stanley's office, mostly in charged silence that followed each time she answered his questions with exactly the same words.
She was stubborn enough to insist on wanting to buy a casket and keep it in her house and refused to answer any other questions or say anything else. She kept so focused on the topic that the doctor had no choice but to agree with Pernello that his grandmother had a fixation and considering her advanced age, this was most likely a product of dementia - or at least diminished capacity to reason. The doctor drafted a letter, endorsing the patient's "wish", though he had called it something else in a language that had to be put in parentheses. Pernello didn't care what the long string of Latin terminology meant, as long as it would make the funeral director at Morgan's Funeral Home sell him the casket and let him take it home. He'd already told him it would not be necessary to deliver the product. He'd pick it up in uncle Frank's truck.
"I did good, no?" she looked up at him when he helped her into the car and reached over to strap the seatbelt around her.
He stared into the face that had been sucked dry by time and carved into deep crevices by events that were as violent as those that had shaped the earth's primordial landscape, and smiled. Then he bent down and kissed the parchment brittle forehead, momentarily drawing in that arid scent of ancient deserts and said, "You did great, Nona. If you'd have told him one more time that you wanted a black casket and no other color, I think he'd have signed a note to sell you as many as you wanted."
She blinked once then her brown eyes softened into honey-colored wisdom. "I read him well," she said with satisfaction. "He's a learned man. He's seen too much sickness and death. He has lots of experience. When he looked at my papers, all those tests he's done and medication he's given me, those told him what he wanted to see. When he looked at me, he saw a talking corpse. He has respect for corpses and I have my casket."
The casket went into the basement and eventually Pernello built a sturdy wooden platform for the matte-black simple container. She'd picked the cheapest model, but insisted that the inside satin padding and decorations be salmon-flesh. Not rose-pink, she said adamantly, but peachy, more natural color. Morgan's color chart did not favor floral names for the colors of the casket's interior lining. She had nixed the buff, oyster, pearl, aqua shadow, sapphire and Byzantine gold. Opal white, she said, was for burying fallen angels, though she had actually murmured a different sentiment: stupido.
Peach color, she said, was soft and had a healthy glow.
"When I'm lying in this," she jabbed a finger, gnarled into a shape of a hook by arthritis, at the casket on display, "I will be gone. Everybody will know they're looking at a corpse. So do I have to look more dead that that? I don't want to lie surrounded by dead colors. Put more life into your colors. Your business will get better."
The funeral director had stood by, hands respectfully crossed in front of him, listening with stoical acceptance that was the foremost requisite for his job. However, Pernello noticed the man's brow twitch ever so slightly, when the client criticized his dignified color chart with such raw honesty.
Now, he went downstairs to the basement and stopped a few feet away from the rectangular shape, covered with a lilac damask tablecloth that she'd made herself from several yards of material bought at Aldo's Fine Imports. He'd driven her down to the Oakwood area, in the heart of the old neighborhood where their family had lived upon their arrival in their new country, and spent an hour pretending he was looking for a parking spot. If he had offered to give her a tour of the neighborhood, she'd have refused and told him not to waste expensive gas. This way, as he complained relentlessly about narrow streets and islands where no sane man ought to make a barrier, she got to see the old and the new features, such as the re-paved streets, parkettes and renovated brownstones. She'd said she missed the streetcar tracks they'd taken out. The street to her now looked naked. He agreed in principle - at least of the naked part. The missing tracks were a delayed answer to his prayers. Then again, she'd never driven a car along St. Clair Avenue, so she'd not know the challenge inherent in such adventure. She'd cut the fabric and sewed it together as neat squares, pattern-matched, and then hemmed it with a simple double-turned edge.
She saw him notice the simplicity and said, "If I wanted you to use this as a tablecloth after I'm gone, I'd have hemmed it in lace."
He understood that the lilac shroud that would cover the casket, until the time came to use it, would also leave with its maker and assured her that her wish would be respected.
"I leave you plenty," she had told him and motioned for him to spread the cloth evenly over the box, resting on its custom wooden platform.
She had already given him more than he could have asked for. He sighed, and not banishing the memories but rather letting them stay behind, he walked up to the casket and took off the cover. He had kept the shades on the basement window drawn, day and night. He didn't want to take a chance that one of his neighbors, ten feet across from him on either side, might notice the characteristic shape that no amount of damask fabric could mask, and wonder - or worse, file an anonymous complaint to the city. A neighbor two doors south of him had built a fifteen-foot canoe in his basement. Half the street came to watch when they had to take out the basement window and five wheel barrows of bricks to bring it out, so the proud builder could test his product. Another neighbor, across the street, had his entire concrete porch taken out in order to bring into the basement a giant hot tub. That kind of basement activity was normal. Casket in the basement, covered and otherwise, was not.
He lifted the lid. It still felt heavy, stiff, but there was no creaking sound. The satin peach upholstery gave off a warm glow. It made him smile. However, his smile faded when he thought of difficulties he faced. It would be no problem to carry her down here, and lay her in the casket. These days, she was no larger than a twelve-year old child. Then again, she'd always been a petite woman, whose strength did not rest on her bones in mounds of flesh, or even in robust frame. Her strength was hidden from the eyes of those like Dr. Stanley, a learned man who'd seen much sickness that robbed people of muscle tone and reduced them to walking cadavers.
She was one of those people who never needed to wear their strength in bands around their arms or belted around their girth. Her strength was in her eyes and her words, and these came from the place that had left him plenty, just as she'd said.
"I can't keep you in the casket for fourteen days - until the night of the full moon - and then call the funeral home to make arrangements," Pernello said out loud, anguish tightening his throat. "What am I going to do?"
He stared at the open casket, imploring the gentle folds and simple tucks of the padding to inspire him. Deep down he knew that no matter how insane his promise to his grandmother had been, he'd do everything in his power to keep it.
Just then, the loud click, followed by a harsh, winding sound reverberated in the basement as the air-conditioner came on. He'd had it installed at the same time as he converted the old oil-furnace to a new gas-fired high-efficiency model, seven years ago. It had been his turn to uphold the established street tradition of tearing out a window and knocking down a portion of the wall so the units could be brought inside. His ex-wife had supervised the destruction and re-build of the wall and when the exhausted crew had finished, they were so anxious to escape they tossed him an invoice from their van and said to mail in his final payment.
Nona had thought it a waste of money. The old furnace was still good and she didn't need air-conditioning. She could cool off in a tubful of ice. In fact, she had said, that when she died, she didn't want him to waste money on funerals. He should just pack her in ice....
He turned his head, seeing with startled eyes that other large shape which lived in the basement - the thirty-cubic-foot chest freezer.
"Oh my God!" he moaned, closing his eyes. He snapped them open again, turned around and raced up the stairs, taking two at the time.
He mis-dialed twice before he got the number right. Breathing as if there was not enough air in the kitchen, he gasped into the phone, "Marina, Marina are you off today?"
"Perry, are you having a heart-attack?" his ex-wife's anxious voice vibrated on the line.
"No, yes, no. Never mind. I need to talk to you."
She was always attuned to family "situations", but never to him as a person. "Something's happened to Nona?"
"Yes, something like that."
"I'll be right over," she said and the line went dead.
He realized what it was that made him fall in love with this tall, well-rounded woman, and marry her. Physical factors played a part for sure, but what he'd always admired in her was her swift decision making ability, and a little frightening resolve not to look back on any decision she'd made, good or bad. They've been separated for three years and divorced for one. In four years, he'd not once asked her how she felt about her decision to leave him and open up her own graphic design business. It's what she studied in college, it's what she worked as for twenty-five years of their marriage, and it's what she loved - a little more than him, as she said. At forty-eight, he wanted to finish his years as the teacher and retire. He'd made no plans beyond that horizon. She not only did, but also carried them out resolutely, without looking back. He did not want to give up the night school teaching and become involved in graphic arts. She didn't mind working alone, if he didn't want to be a part of her graphic enterprise. But she hated being alone and stewing about it, waiting for him to come home at eleven o'clock at night, four nights a week. She weighed the two states of loneliness and put back on the shelf the one she found less tolerable. He told her that he was not good in graphic arts or any art for that matter. He was a math teacher. He loved teaching math, day and night. She said it didn't matter whether he was good or bad - just that he was there.
They parted in that state - decided on her part and uncertain and unsettling for him.
"You're crazy," she told him when he finished telling her, haltingly and with hand gestures, what happened and what he had to honor. "Of course I will pick out her clothes and get her ready. I loved her. She was a steel butterfly."
"Do you mean you are...will...?" He couldn't finish the question.
She braced her hands on her hips and tilted her head backward, letting out a huge sigh.
"Perry, there's no other way. We can't keep Nona in the house, in her bed as she is, for fourteen days. Even with air-conditioning, it's summertime, for heaven's sake. The authorities would commit you then for sure. And you have a promise to honor - so..." She trailed off on that imperious note.
Marina picked out Nona's clothes, dressed her and then he carried the frail body down to the basement. She brought down white plastic garbage bags and after they carefully wrapped the body into the lilac damask shroud, they taped the plastic bags around it, and then he worked for half an hour, emptying the contents of the freezer into the laundry baskets.
"I'll take half of this stuff with me and store it for you in my freezer," Marina said, indicating the mounds of packages, wrapped in brown, waxed freezer paper. They had always bought a side of beef and had it cut up then parceled into family-of-six portions. He'd kept up the tradition, not bothering to give the butcher new instructions as to how many steaks to wrap in a package.
"Actually, you might as well keep it. The kids live with you. I don't know why I stock so much meat. She wasn't fond of beef anyway and these past couple of years, it's been porridge, biscotti, cheese and fruits. She still liked chicken and vegetables. That's why I've kept so much rapini and broccoli in the freezer. It was easy for her to defrost the bag...well, you know," he finished lamely, since Marina knew better than anyone else what Nona's eating regimen was. She'd been there, right next to him, helping take care of her for quarter of a century.
When he emptied the freezer, Marina helped him to put the body inside and they stood beside it for a moment, eyes closed, hands clasped in steeples, then, when he heard Marina's sigh he opened his eyes and reaching out, closed the lid.
"Are you going to hold up?" she asked him, as she was leaving.
"I'll miss her but she kept telling me these last couple of years that it was her time. Actually, she was getting damn impatient for her time to come," he managed a feeble smile.
"I meant whether you will be all right, for two weeks - finishing off at school, going to work?"
He shook his head, and she promised to check with him daily, until the night of the full moon. Somehow, without her even mentioning it, he knew she'd want to be a part of the ceremony.
It was another beautiful clear July night. The moon had decided to reward her for the trust she'd placed in its dead-but-shining face, and came out as huge as that night of twenty-eight years ago. The crackle mosaic of its maria looked softer though, as if the Luna had finally started to show its ghostly core, its heart. The two of them had a hell of a time carrying the casket upstairs and outside, on to the deck, because he couldn't find the canvas straps and a dolly he'd used when bringing it in. They went back to the basement and taking a huge breath, holding it and then releasing it slowly, he'd opened the freezer chest.
When they unwrapped the plastic and the lilac shroud and looked, neither of them said anything for a long time.
"She doesn't look that bad at all," Marina shattered the silence.
He agreed. In the yellow light of the basement, the small triangular face looked a little waxy and hard, but otherwise he couldn't see much difference between how she looked now, and the time he'd found her in her bed, that morning, two weeks ago. Of course, once he'd picked up the body, there was a great deal of difference. She felt like a store mannequin, or an ice sculpture.
He brought her upstairs and outside, then, while Marina opened the casket and held the lid up, he carefully placed her in the middle of the satin folds.
"Do caskets come in sizes?" he heard Marina murmur and knew what had flashed through her mind. A child's casket would have been more than sufficient for this nearly century-strong woman who'd perhaps felt that aging for her also meant diminishing physically and she didn't want to disappear.
By habit, Marina moved to turn on the light and he stopped her in time before she flicked the switch. It would be too optimistic to hope for that his neighbors were asleep. It was not even eleven o'clock. One of them would notice for sure the strange rectangular shape with an open lid and shining satin lining, standing on the teacher's deck, and at least phone him, to ask whether he knew his deck was not empty. Then again, depending on his neighbors' state of mind, they might by-pass the courtesy and just call the police. The deck was too small for lounge chairs, in addition to the casket. He brought over two wooden stools and they sat down, to a vigil by Nona's side.
"She'd have loved that moon," Marina said softly, looking at the tiny face barely visible in the deep and padded coffin. She rose and went to re-arrange the lilac shroud such that it did not interfere with her view. At the same time, she folded and scrunched the pillow so Nona's head would sit higher.
"She'll have a better view of it," Marina said, sitting back down on the stool.
"You're crazy," he told her and she laughed.
"I got a contract to do a design for a poetry collection," she said. "What do you think of a steel butterfly, silhouetted against the misty background of light, streaming from a full moon on a night like this?"
"She'd like that," he said. "No casket?"
"Maybe not a casket in its characteristic shape, but how about a ship of dreams? One of those barques with oars sticking out of its sides, that sailed the Nile in ancient times."
"She'd like that too. When I was a teenager, I used to read her books while she sewed in the basement. I read her once Fitzgerald's 'Babylon Revisited' and she stopped me after about half an hour and said she'd thought it was about the pyramids and the Nile, not about Americans and Paris. I'd explained, as best as I could, the nature of the title. Do you know what she said?" He stared at his ex-wife in the silvery night of the full moon.
"Something funny and shrewd."
He chuckled. "She said Fitzgerald must have written that book with his eyes crossed, but that a cross-eyed man was for sure to write interesting things because he'd be able to see the same thing in a different light at the same time. How are the kids doing?"
"All right. Victoria would like to come and live with you. No," he saw her shake her head. "It's not because she's gone and you're now here alone. She'd asked me two months ago to speak to you, because she didn't know how to ask. I didn't want to tell her that I didn't know how to ask either...." she trailed off, lowering her head.
"Sure. I'd like that," he said. Victoria, his youngest, was twenty-two and still in college, doing her master's degree in economics. Twenty four-year old Lenny and a year younger Louis, were already working. Both boys had finished Teacher's College and got jobs with the Board of Education.
Just then a flash of light from the southern neighbor created a long bar on the deck.
Neither of them bothered to turn around and look to where the neighbor had turned on his kitchen light.
"Perry, you know, if not Donatello then Adriani will call the police. Neither one of them had been very nice since you've asked them to prune the branches off their plum trees when these started to droop all the way down to the tomato patch."
"I know," he acknowledged quietly.
"The police will have questions. She's still frozen."
"I don't know if they'll charge you, but I think there's at least a heavy fine in this."
"If by chance they lock you up, I'll look after the funeral arrangements. I'll make sure she'll get buried on the second night of the waning moon."
He chuckled. "That might not be that easy either."
"I got those slackers who came to install the new furnace to re-build the wall properly, didn't I?"
He laughed. "Even I wasn't able to tell the difference between the old and new mortar."
"You know, this might leak out to the media too."
It's what he worried and feared the most, but not enough to stop him from honoring the promise he'd given to the woman who'd left him plenty.
"And if Gardner hears about it...." she trailed off.
Phil Gardner was the principal of Millanstone High and his boss. "They'll ask me to take a leave of absence, or maybe offer early retirement." Gardner would hang him first before he'd left him teach the impressionable young minds, residing in the not-so-young thugs that comprised the general student body of Millanstone.
"What will you do if they do ask you to retire - take the honorable option?"
He shrugged and tilted his head, to see the much smaller face of the moon. It had paid respects to one of its devoted believers and had retreated into its high position, of guardian of pure and clean fantasy.
"If they kick you out, would you consider of helping me out with bookkeeping at my place?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I would just like to see her at rest, all her wishes fulfilled." He turned back, and nodded at the ageless woman in the casket.
"You already did, Nello," Marina said softly and suddenly they both heard the shrill ringing of the doorbell.
"That would be the police," he said, casually and calmly, not caring one way of the other.
"Let me handle the law," she said, rising.
As she headed for the patio door, he said. "If you make them leave in a hurry, tossing a parking ticket to you from a distance, I'll do your bookkeeping." He heard her laughter shower in her wake like silver rain. He rose, approached the casket and then turning his back on the distant moon, he crossed himself and softly started the ritual of ancient words.
*** The End ***