At Clara’s funeral the grass between the cracks in the pavement was as shocking as green hair. It was brighter, dewier, than any of the lawns of Illeana’s childhood. There, in Long Island, the sprinklers had clicked tiny needles of water so fine and incessant that there was never a rough patch. As a girl she had lived in a white house behind massive stone pillars and a sign that read No Trespassing. Illeana, although she had stood on the right side of the sign, had always thought of that sign as mean. (It was a guilty pleasure, rolling on her own emerald carpet.) When Clara was a girl she had lived on an island in the Caribbean with a name that sounded edible, delicious. “My island,” Clara had always called it. The name of the place eluded her, despite the fact that Illeana had been there once, long before Clara, on vacation. She remembered the island’s fierce light and that it had English crew cut lawns for cricket. Instead of the island landscape, Clara must have walked over this Queens grass every day on her way to the subway to Illeana’s apartment in Manhattan to clean. Queens grass bursting up despite the dirty pavement.
The death made Illeana forgetful and self-conscious. What was there to say about it? There was only the embarrassment of emotion, or even worse, sentiment. She focussed on minutia, the small slivers of beauty. That morning as she dressed, she watched the reflection of her fingers as they trailed down the center of her chest like a large white insect. That was all she was doing. Dressing. This was who she was: Mrs. Winthrop. She had practiced saying it out loud. Hello, I’m Mrs. Winthrop, and it seemed strange to her as if she had simply donned a hat by taking this name three decades ago and even stranger that the namer, her husband, was gone. Winthrop. The name meant the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It meant safety in ancestors but they were not hers. She was perhaps her child’s self again. Girlish, innocent of boundaries.
In the car on the way here, she had tried to imagine that Clara had once been a girl. How could she describe Clara? By the jingle of the pitcher of ice water they had for dinner, by her reserved smile and opinionated arched eyebrow, by her reliability? She, too, was now just a name. The loss made her feel airy and light, unreal. A small smile, almost of shame, but what was it, a smile of curtains and coverups, stretched across her lips and stayed there through the tunnel and under the high blue rattling sky on the way to the other borough.
Outside of the car, she could hear her own footsteps: rural, cozy, the quaint tap-tapping of one person moving alone. The Long Island Expressway was only a distant growl behind her. She heard the murmuring of mourners, saw the avenue of still brown houses and prickly, well-tended rose bushes across from an empty lot littered with broken dolls and fenders and bicycle debris. The white stucco church was hushed and solid like a massive grandfather behind her, breathing.
Illeana saw the casket, and knew that now, impossibly, Clara was inside of it. Clara was so fat. Only a coroner’s magic enabled her body to fit into that slim rectangular box. She watched as eight black men carried the coffin into the dark opening of the church.
One man had eyes that bulged as if he were in a constant state of surprise. Another had a flat top haircut that looked like the plateau on a mountain range. A young one looked like Clara did with his round cute eyes and his full but pursed mouth punctuated on both sides by deep pits. She studied and compared them surprised by their differences. They were exotic. One more stood aside with an ashy face and yellowish eyes. She recognized him as Clara’s ex husband. His hands were gnarled and dusty as if he had worked hard his whole life, but Clara had told Mrs. Winthrop that he had never worked. Illeana had fancied herself a confidante. He nodded at Illeana, but avoided the others. It struck her freshly, although she had seen it before, the strangeness of an ex- husband showing up at a funeral after years of absence. She was perhaps more welcome than he was. Each of the men knew her, Mrs. Winthrop, even if she did not know them. She stood out. She had never imagined the rest of Clara’s life, the variety of faces, the sister and cousin she lived with, her barren lots filled with doll’s heads and fenders and the incongruous lovely pastures of sky above them. Open expanses of blue hovered above the broken lots. That horizon above the lot, where the rubble met the sky could be called the poverty line. The forgiving mass of pale blue hung democratically above all boroughs, all islands.
What was she doing here? She knew only that she had taken care of Clara in certain ways, as Clara had of her. Mrs Winthrop she whispered to herself amazed that they knew her name. She wondered if they had heard that she was a fair employer. She had paid her and fed her and medicated her. She had sent her home to the island once a year. They had enabled each other’s lives. Like even the happiest of marriages, it was a contract. It was a bind. They were bound, too, like parents and children, as if they had not chosen one another.
Illeana watched as the coffin disappeared inside the church slowly, like an ambling bus turning a corner. It was just that transferable and unreal; it was a car driving away and vanishing. But, like a car, it seemed that it would magically return later, its inhabitant safely inside. Her pale eyes were dry but inquisitive in the face of this mystery. The fissure in her chest, lodged there since the news of her death, was expanding like the sky above the rubbled lot, growing blue emptiness, austere beauty between her lungs. The fact of the death, the heart’s collapse at the dentist’s office, was inconceivable, nearly comical: Imagine that clean beige dentist’s office, with the view of the Chrysler building. Imagine the Vivaldi playing in the background, the sound of the drill, and the gritty paste on Clara’s tongue. It was a place of bodily maintenance. Antiseptic. Inured to death. By the time the nurse had reached Illeana, a serene white coma had fallen over Clara like a heavy snow.
Illeana passed people seated on the pews and they looked up at her and said Mrs. Winthrop, Mrs. Winthrop with little nods and glances, little half smiles because it was a funeral. She was not a stranger! She had answered the phone and then Clara had lost her voice, all her memory, had become, the doctor said brain dead.
Perhaps this was contagious: She could not remember the name of the island. Mrs. Winthrop Mrs. Winthrop they whispered and nodded as she passed. She absently twirled the diamond on her ring finger to face her palm. She noticed the heaviness of her watch and the fine calf’s leather of her pumps. She was Mrs. Winthrop and they knew her. They must have heard about her. Just the other day Clara had ironed and folded all of her underwear and she was wearing one pair now and it had felt soft and clean as she put it on that morning. “Here, Clara, have these,” she had said as Clara was leaving the bedroom. She offered a box of ten mini sample perfumes because Clara always said she loved “fragrance” and these little bottles were clutter for Illeana.
“Mrs. Winthrop, Thank you,” a woman said as Illeana sat down in her fresh underwear, as if she knew about the perfume. The brown various faces passed by her as she sat and she squinted a smile up at them, for what could she possibly say about Clara to them? They were her family. They had arranged the funeral themselves, Illeana had told her daughter, Kate, who lived in Los Angeles. “Well why wouldn’t they?”
“I just thought that I would have arranged it for her, I arrange so many things for her, I don’t know. I sent her to the best ophthalmologist in New York for eye surgery.”
“She has a family. This is not indentured servitude.” But it seemed that she did not have a family besides Illeana and her daughter, and, before he had died, Mr. Winthrop. At his funeral Clara had not seemed surprised at all to see Mr. Winthrop’s relatives, friends and business colleagues. Of course he had them. They were all white, as almost everyone here was black. Clara had not seemed flustered or awkward walking though the masses of people outside the Campbell funeral home on Madison Avenue. Clara had been sad: Illeana could tell by the way her step became heavy, her laughter, gone. But she was not uncomfortable, because among the people at his funeral, she was invisible.
But on that day, Illeana had needed her at Campbells. For what? To say Mrs. Winthrop; to remain invisible but to be near her; to serve lunch afterwards; to be. To cry as Mrs, Winthrop didn’t. Two red-faced men parked Clara’s casket on a stand in the center of the room. The closures were stiff and snapped like the latches on glass mason jars as they opened them. Leaning over Clara, it looked like they were tucking a child in to bed. Illeana could see them adjust the white frill that surrounded her and splay her stiff dead hair. Illeana was not Catholic, so was not prepared for them to step away, and reveal Clara’s face, her fat little drained hands connected daintily over her chest. It seemed they should have stayed there, tending to her, pampering her, as she had others, seeing that she was just right, that there was not a sleeve pushed up too far on her arm, or a sock twisted on in haste.
But only a giant baby could feel such things. She couldn’t. The men stepped away and stood behind the casket like guards. Funerals were formal. Clara would have liked the fuss and the giant spray of flowers that fanned up behind the casket like an awning. It was perhaps her fanciest party. Clara’s face was a matte brown and painted clownishly. Illeana touched her own lips, covering a small gasp that escaped at the sight of Clara. They were dry and unpainted and she touched the fine lines on them amazed at their warmth and their life. The death, oddly, had made the world new for her, colors keener, her breath warmer. Her poor memory plagued her with what it brought back and what it omitted. The island? Tuga. Ono. Bana. Something melodic.
People were still entering the church. Two white women suddenly bustled up to the edge of the casket to see inside of it. They looked down at the body as they said the rosary. When they were finished they turned and faced Illeana as they went to find seats behind her. “I didn’t know her,” the shorter one said to Illeana, “but we saw there was a funeral and we came to see, to see what she was like.”
The other one interrupted, “Yes we like to come and pay our respects and to see what someone was like.” Illeana squinted her dry smile up at them, as if they could actually do such a thing, as if it were at all possible to tell from such a crib like posture, such a flat, drained, painted face, what Clara was like. She wondered if they could have known what she was like by looking at her even if she had been alive. It was mysterious how exactly you knew someone, through what method? What kind of divination? Surely it was not the shape of a face (that was as ridiculous as phrenology) but it could be the shapes that a face took on, the expressions, the words it uttered and the way that it uttered them. Posture, gait, gossip, gesture. Through photographs and second hand stories. Always a step away.
Had she denied Clara her life or given it to her? The small salary had led to the apartment in this neighborhood and these friends, this congregation. These rubbled lots. The white women prayed and jangled their rosaries behind her. Illeana rose. She moved instinctively as if to get away from the two women who wanted to see what Clara was like. She did not want to be, mistakenly, associated with them as the three white ladies. Although she saw that they were dressed differently. They wore spongy pink and white sneakers, acrylic cardigans and elastic waist pants. When she was up she realized there were no other seats so she kept walking and smiled her squinty smile and made her way to the door. A few late people were ushered into the church. It was crowded. It was more crowded than Clara’s birthday party was the last year Mike was alive and the two of them had bought Clara a cake and served it to her after dinner as she washed dishes. It had candles in it and small pink roses around the base. It had a marzipan layer in the middle that Illeana knew Clara loved but ate infrequently because of her weight. She wanted to give her her favorite thing. She had not thought to give her a real party. There were so many people Clara knew. She wondered if any of them had heard about that special French cake with the marzipan layer, if Clara had translated one life to those of another life.
Ileanna made her way out of the whispering throng and onto the cracked sidewalk. The bathroom, she had been told, was just next door in the small Sunday school attached to the church. Her heels tapped on the linoleum of the school hallway. At the end of the hall was a large mint green room with a dancer’s stretching bar. The rooms off the hallway were colorful as Easter eggs. One was pale pink with a white ceiling marred by the buzz of florescent lights. One was sea-foam blue. The yellow one was small and square with white trim along the windows and small carved wooden desks lined in rows. The floor was clean and waxy. Sunlight streamed into the room and shone on a row of spider plants that fringed the windowsill. Someone had taken care of them and they had been clipped and repotted into various smaller clay pots. They had been made comfortable and grown luxurious.
A song began in the church next door. A spiritual hymn she remembered from the Episcopalian church of her childhood. She had been ten once singing that song, as Clara was ten once. Last week when Illeana had given Clara the perfumes, Clara had said the one with black and pink label reminded her of a night blooming frangipani that grew on the island and let its sugar scent in the darkness. She had dabbed some behind her ears at Illeana’s urging. She was fifty-nine then, three days ago, and even though Illenna was also fifty-nine, she realized she had always felt much older or much younger than Clara. But they were born the same year. They had both been babies in 1942. Those few sensate months, that blind, fleeting time, their lives had been similar. Illeana had been a baby on the edge of the roaring road just near the giant globe that marked the spot of a world’s fair, near Kennedy Airport, in fact, she realized, in Queens.
Here she was back again. The childhood move to Long Island had been a false distinction. It was really one island: part borough, part pasture. The move to Manhattan, the majority of her life, seemed suddenly like an illusion. Illeana sat down in one of the school desks and rested her forehead in her hands. Her long legs stretched out in front of the child’s chair. The room was orderly, tropical and smelled of detergent. The sun warmed the crown of her smooth gray hair. She listened to the familiar music as it lifted and fell next door. The room began to beat and glow with the sun, the crescendo of distant voices. She was missing the funeral, yet she was exactly where she was supposed to be. Here, a few miles away from Illeana’s Fifth Avenue, was Clara’s schoolroom in–she remembered it now–the island of Barbados.
Clara had been a child there in a room like this, painted an impossibly pale tone of yellow or peach, plants growing amid the linoleum, and the florescent beams of light. And outside grass grew there too. Hedging steadily, it choked the perimeter of the white stucco houses, hugged the edges of cinderblock and shacks, sprouted up and defiantly continued its life between the busted ruts of the tourist roads.