A Light in the Cupboard

There were no rules against applying your own mother’s makeup for your own mother’s funeral. It wasn’t like representing your father in a trial or operating on your son or anything like that. And besides, who else was there to ask in a town of 4,082 where there was only one mortuary makeup artist? And besides, who’d know how to make her up better than her own daughter? And besides, there were no rules against it.

In some tiny cupboard in the darkness of her brain, Lula allowed herself to believe that if she got the look just right, she could be back there with her mother. With her. Not stuck in layaway in a city five hundred miles away. Not eating a cheeseburger at a crappy airport restaurant as she breathed her last.

Laying in her casket’s faux-velvet (all they’d been able to afford), she could be sleeping. Flu-ridden maybe, pale from her immune system’s effort, “resting her eyes” like childhood days when Mom was worn out from her second shift and it was always just something: “just set for a while,” “just five more minutes,” “just resting my eyes.” It always ended on that one, even now.

Hair: Coiffured, hairspray applied and false-fruity smelling, the stuff always announcing Mom’s presence before she entered a room, gag-worthy usually, but not now. The smell somehow different, like it was extracted from real fruit this time. Gentle teasing to hint at fulness, hide the bare spots where Mom ripped out clumps and ate them, moved on from eating rocks when Lula stopped her and ate the hairs dry, split ends sometimes dangling over her bottom lip, fresh white follicles catching light and saying, “Look over here, Lula, here’s one you missed.”

Lips: Bad Motherpucker to give them the look of life, Mom not able to put her hand out and say Lula in that way she did at “motherpucker.” Her lips like a popped tire, rubber gashed. The lipstick she’d apply spread from the center out, like a flower, like when Mom would try each shade one at a time, test kisses on Lula’s arm and then wipe them off, but the stain would stay for a day or two and Lula would spit and scrub but secretly hope it wouldn’t fade.

Cheeks: Blush fingerpainted on, concealer to cover the scars from her many falls, always falling and bruising her eyes, chipping her teeth, bloodying her nose. Always so clumsy when Dad was around, and blushing just like this, ashamed to be around him, then again when the Alzheimer’s swam through her, the color in her cheeks a permanent rose. The same brand Mom used to instruct Lula in the cosmetic ways. “Make me up, Mom,” she’d say. Make me up.

Eyes: More concealer for the puffiness. Always crying after the diagnosis. Crying after being fed, crying after being changed. Eyes’ whites fading to red, blues graying, like smoke over the fire inside her, flames bursting not through windows but tear ducts and vocal cords. Lula putting on Dad’s going away 45s, the ones Mom would play each “last time” he’d leave, mouth dancing around chori, gray eyes going blue again, tiny oceans to put out the flames inside.

Lula could dance to those old 45s, dance and sing like she would with Mom, cheek to cheek, hands in tango position. Lula led herself around the room in delicate swoops, around and around we go, tango hands grasping air but out still, and warm, warm like they’d be when she hardly reached Mom’s hip, warm again with those gray-blues across from her, the flame of recognition replacing the one of identity loss. So Lula spun and she spun and somewhere, somewhere deep inside, a light went on in an otherwise dark and tiny cupboard.

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THE PICTURE

There was a recliner. He was on it and the TV was on and there was some game playing. Remember when he played in college? Which team was it? They had leather helmets back then, not even enough to keep you from concussing. Like the ones now were any better.

There was a recliner. Someone walked in the room and behind them was a TV. On the TV there was some game. Didn’t he play in college? Who was it for? The person stood in front of him and just wouldn’t move out of the way. The TV was on behind them.

“Hey, grandpa. Watching the game?”

The person just stood there, expecting something. There was a TV on behind them, but he couldn’t see it on account of the person. Who was the person?

“You okay, grandpa?”

“Yes, yes, fine.”

He didn’t know where the words came from. The person looked familiar, and they were smiling, so it couldn’t be all bad. The TV was on. There was a game or something playing on it. What was it again? Football. It was a football game.

“You know what today is?”

The person was looking at him now, giving that facial cue that meant that they were expecting an answer or something. Did they ask him something? Why was he on the recliner? There was a game on the TV.

“Grandma’s birthday. She would’ve been ninety-three today.”

Birthday. Candles on a cake and some wish that you had to close your eyes for and really focus on. Don’t spit when you blow them out. Ten candles on the cake, yellow. Good frosting. Stack of presents in the corner, people all smiling. All happy.

That person was looking at him again. What was it? Was it about the TV and the game? He leaned back in the recliner and scratched the stubble on his chin.

“I fished this one out of storage. Thought you’d like it.”

The person held something out. Silver frame, reflection in it. Distorted old face in the reflection, eyes lost and far away. Gray stubble on the chin, hair disheveled but distinguished still. Got a real shape to it.

Between the frame, in the center of it. A picture. A dream.

She was beautiful then, beautiful till the day she died. The wife. His wife. He had wedded her and she was his wife. Her name was Jean Marie and she became his woman then. Her golden locks and that smile that made his heart get funny. She was funny and he was too. They had each other.

He held that picture in his hand. There was the recliner and the TV and the game, but they didn’t matter. He had the picture. His Jean Marie.

He looked up. His grandson was there, looking at him. Not just a person, his grandson. His grandson brought him the picture of his Jean Marie, and he was happy. Thankful.

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