When Momma Came Home for Christmas and Talmidge Quoted Frost
“Talmidge,” she said across the living room to her husband, who was stretched out on the couch with his camouflage clothes still on from a deer hunt earlier that Saturday morning—it wasn’t quite eleven. He was in his socked feet, muddy boots just outside the kitchen door, where she asked that he leave them. White shag did not clean up easily. He stirred at her voice but did not open his eyes.
Then he did open an eye and even turned his head a bit toward her.
She had been sitting a long time staring at the Christmas tree in general and at a great frosty blue ornament in particular, almost four inches across, handblown and therefore not quite round but near enough that no one could tell without close inspection. It had been her mother’s favorite over the years, passed down for four generations, probably the oldest one she had and the dearest to her. It even had its special velvet-lined box that a snow globe had come in.
“What?” he finally said, when it was obvious to him that she had forgotten what she had called him for.
She slowly rotated her head in his direction until her eyes met the one that he had open.
“Talmidge, how far can you throw a softball?”
He turned his head back in alignment with his body, which looked all the world to her like a great mound of leaves raked up to haul off or burn. The little ridge of hair he still had, with not so much as a trace of color left in it, resembled a horseshoe made out of dirty ice and wedged down on his head, the skin clamped between its prongs red as a blister. A front-end man at the local Ford place, he spent most of his weekends on that couch when he wasn’t hunting or fishing, usually with the blaring television on, whether he was watching it or not.
He had been a good husband and provider for nearly twenty years, and she loved him, but, Lord, he was so rough around the edges, with not a dram of romance in him. Every time she thought she had him housebroken—in all the ways a woman would mean it—he reverted and went back to being the same man she met at the door every weekday evening: greasy and shopmouthed and smelling of beer and cigars. The mechanics had a daily ritual of meeting at a joint after work and drinking beer and smoking and griping about the owner of the dealership. She put up with it, since it kept him happy.
“Two hundred and seventy-two feet, eight inches,” he said. “If the ball ain’t wet and it’s a still day.”
He rolled his head toward her again. “Hell, Darlene, get real here. I ain’t throwed a softball in ten years, and I ain’t got no idea how far I can throw one. Maybe from here to the road.”
“Which is not all that far,” she said.
“And then only if I had a reason to.” He belched and sighed. “Which I don’t.” He rolled his head back and dropped his chin on his chest.
She saw no advantage in pushing, so she let him drift off to sleep. Before his lips had begun to puff and flutter, she had the blue ball off the tree and in its padded box. There was plenty of time, plenty of time.
For eight months now her mother had sat quietly on a bookshelf in the guest bedroom, six or seven pounds of gray bone ash in a plastic bag inside an urn made out of something just slightly nicer than Tupperware and that inside the ordinary cardboard shipping box she came in, courtesy of the U.S. Post Office, which they didn’t even have the common decency to ask anybody to sign for. They left her wedged in the mailbox like a carton of Mississippi State cheddar cheese, with the lid left open where any dog could have lifted on his hind legs and toted her off and maybe scattered her across the lawns of people she had never known and would have hated if she had. But Darlene didn’t complain, just gave thanks that she got to her before the dogs did and brought her in from the weather.
Pitching cremation was not an easy thing with the old woman, since she had it fixed in her head from the time she was a little girl that on Judgment Day all the bones in the cemeteries would rise up and reassemble, knee bone to thigh bone to hip bone and all that, and walk forth—to wherever it was they caught the freight that would take them to Heaven. Darlene had a hard time making her understand that skeletons can’t even get up out of the grave, much less walk, without tendons and muscles, which the worms would have taken care of, twenty-year gasket guarantee or not. And what were they going to do once they got through the Pearly Gate Station, sit around and clack their boney jaws together all day singing hymns of praise? She found it much easier to reason with her fifth-grade students than to deal with her mother and her notions of what happened to the body after death. It wasn’t until a family friend chose cremation and her momma heard about how sweet it was for the family to sprinkle her ashes in all the places she loved that she began to yield to the notion.
Old Miz Melvinson dropped by one Sunday morning to have some ice cream and whiskey with her momma—what they called bourbon sundaes, which they sipped on until both of them just drifted off to sleep in the plant-room chairs and drooled and dreamed until well on over into the afternoon—and told them about it.
“Why, Myrell’s children taken her ashes out to ever place they ever lived and sprankled part of her under azalea bushes and mimosa trees, in ditches and ponds, just all over everywhere that she lived at and loved. Big as she was, they was surprised and disappointed they didn’t get a bushel basket of ashes so they could of spread her further.”
Miz Melvinson could somehow not get it through her head that the size of a person did not determine the volume of ashes, since all you got back was ground bones and teeth, and in Miz Melevinson’s case it would be just bones. They removed anything artificial before incineration—or so Darlene had been told.
The old woman took a snort of her bourbon sundae and continued: “Gerald, her son, the dim one they call Dum-Dum, he taken a good double handful of her for what he called aggregate, or something like that, and mixed her with some cement and water and poured a little square out by the road and made her initials in it with a pocketknife, only he got the letters backwards since he’s dyslectic, and put a pot of geraniums on it. Sweet is what it was.” She could still hear Miz Melvinson going on and on about it and would have gotten up out of her chair and hugged her out of gratitude but for the fact that the old lady had a goiter the size of an unshucked coconut on her neck and bristly with hair like a coconut and she wasn’t sure how it would be touching something like that—warm and hairy and part of somebody’s neck. So Darlene just smiled a lot and later, after the two old women had come out of their bourbon doze, shook Miz Melvinson’s hand as she left.
Talking with Talmidge about it was like talking to him about the economics of Tibet. The first time she brought it up was essentially the last. He was sprawled on the couch, as always, firmly planted in the wallow he had made for his butt in the middle cushion, reading a magazine when she just up and asked him what he thought about cremation. For a long time he didn’t even bother to look over at her, but finally her insistence prompted him to raise his eyes from his Outdoor Life.
“Well, this ain’t the kind of thing I like to think about or talk about, so let me tell you just once and we’ll let it lay there forever after, if that’s okay with you: I flat don’t give a shit what you do with my body once the breath is gone. When I am through with it, as far as I am concerned you can have it cut up and barbecued and served in Ethiopia. Bury me in the ground or stuff me and prop me in a corner or have me cremated—I really just do not give a hearty shit. Just make sure I’m dead first, whatever you decide to do with what is left after the spirit is gone.”
So she said no more to him about it, though she went that very day and took her will out of the safety deposit box down at the bank and retyped it completely, stipulating in language as plain as she could put it that she was to be cremated and her ashes were to be scattered. She named eight places dear enough to her that she wanted to be part of for the rest of eternity and concluded with:
And I want what’s left over to be kept safe and secure until such time as they can be mixed with Talmidge’s ashes. And no matter what he says, he is for cremation too. If his ashes are already in the ground, I want them dug up and mine mixed with them and put back where he was. He may not be much of a husband, but he is all I have.
She didn’t know how to make it any plainer than that. Anybody who could not follow those instructions was a fool.
Disposing of her mother’s ashes would have been a simple matter of driving down to Vaughan to the Old Home Place, walking back in the bushes to where the house had stood before fire took it one deep December, and scattering the ashes all about, especially under and around the azalea bushes her momma had so dearly loved. But where families are concerned things are rarely simple. A hunting club bought up the property—agreed to by Darlene only when her three brothers outvoted her and told her she could sign or not but the place was sold—and threw up a game fence some twelve-feet high to keep in their cultivated many-pronged bucks, with locked gates and warning signs galore. And when Darlene asked permission to scatter her momma’s ashes where the old house had stood, they advised her that no trespass would be permitted—whatever their reason, they were staunch against the ashes being spread there. She even offered them fifty dollars, which they politely but resolutely refused. Like the ashes would scare away the deer.
The notion that came to her that Saturday morning was the result of months and months of worrying about how to get it done: how to spread her momma’s ashes where she promised that she would. The hardest part, then, was over. Convincing Talmidge was merely a matter of matching his wits against hers, which was like pitting a VW against a freight train.
That Sunday morning Talmidge was predictably out in the shop fiddling with his loading equipment. He had bought a big blue something-or-other machine, spread out across his work bench like a chemical factory, that he referred to as a progressive loader. It would load two thousand rounds of pistol or rifle ammunition a minute, or something like that, without missing a beat, and the powder charges, whatever the hell those were, would be within something like an eyelash weight of each other through the whole run. He shot maybe five times a year out at the range and had never so much as drawn fur on a deer, though he hunted constantly. He did bring in a coyote once, but she refused to let him have it mounted—made him bury it in the backyard. So she couldn’t see the need for anything that could crank out enough ammo to equip most African nations, but he bought it with his own money, which he made on the side by rebuilding transmissions some weekends with parts stolen at the dealership, so she didn’t gripe about it. It kept him in the shop and out of her hair.
She walked in without knocking, which she wished she hadn’t, since he had just passed some truly vile gas, so she just backed out and gave it time to clear, then knocked. He motioned for her to enter.
“What’s up, baby?”
“Talmidge, I have a problem, and I want your advice.”
This was the way to handle him. Like most animals, the way to get him to do something was to let him think that he thought of it himself. Actually, she was being a little unfair, since she had over the years subdued him to the useful and the good by methodically correcting his manners and language until she at least felt comfortable with him in Wal-Mart. And that was unfair too. He really was not such a bad sort, and he did love her, which no other man had done, or at least not long or properly. He would even go to church with her some Sundays, if she promised him fried chicken or a pot roast afterwards.
He had turned off the progressive part of his machine and sat looking at her. “What can I help you with, lady? Your transmission slippin’?”
“Not a chance, with my man around,” she said.
“What is it, then, baby?”
“It’s Momma, Talmidge.”
He stared at her for a few seconds. Then: “She done come back from the dead, or what?”
“Talmidge, I’m serious.”
“I’m serious too, Darlene. You talking about a dead woman, just ashes. What the hell’s she got to do with anything anymore?”
She cleared her throat. “We have not fulfilled her final directions. We have not scattered her ashes at the Old Home Place.”
“And for very good reason,” he said. “We been told that if we go back in there we’ll be arrested, without we got antlers with at least eight points.”
“Talmidge, where there’s a will…” She stopped at that because it just didn’t sound right, since her momma had not actually had a will, which caused all kinds of grief in settling the estate. Her sister had threatened to take her to court to get a German-made silver service, which Darlene didn’t even want anyway. They fought half a year dividing up the paltry estate.
“There is a way to do it, which is why I am out here consulting you.”
He reached and turned the loading machine off completely and spun around on his stool to face her. “And exactly how can I help in this matter?”
Darlene looked over at the refrigerator in the corner of the shop. “Would you like a beer while we talk this over?”
“On Sunday morning? If I’d thought of that, you’d of said ‘no way, Jose.’ What you up to?”
“Call it a special occasion, Talmidge. Do you want a beer or not?”
“Does a frog have a watertight asshole?”
“I take that to mean yes,” she said. Darlene walked over and took two beers out of the refrigerator and handed them to him. “You’ll have to twist these caps off.”
“You having one too?”
“This is some serious business, Talmidge. A beer will help.”
He screwed the caps off and handed her one beer and threw back and downed half of his before he came up for air. He belched and winced.
“Alright, Darlene, tell me, what’s up, girl?”
“Okay, Talmidge.” She took a sip of beer and leveled her eyes at him. “If you wanted to get something through or over a game fence—like, say, a bunch of ashes—how would you go about it?”
He finished his beer and walked over and got out another one. It was clear that he was thinking but not that he was thinking clear. He sat back down on the stool and took a slug, then studied the condensation on the bottle.
“With shotgun shells. I would load shotgun shells with the ashes and shoot ’em right over and through that fence, what I’d do.”
“Unh-hunnnnn,” she said, “and exactly how long do you think it would take somebody from that damned hunting club to be all over you? Two minutes? Five? Ten? You have already told me that you can’t mess with people like them.”
“That’s the best way I can think of. You’d scatter ’em all over creation with shotgun shells. Your momma would blanket that place.”
“Talmidge, you know how Momma hated guns. She’d come right back here and haunt both of us.”
“Then what would you do, Darlene?”
She sat down on the stool next to him and leaned forward and with her schoolteacher demeanor began: “Here’s what…”
When she had finished explaining her plan, he studied it a few seconds. Then: “Why don’t we mix it two-thirds Bullseye and one-third ashes and run a fuse down in there. It’d be like a grenade.”
All she knew about Bullseye was that it was some kind of gunpowder.
“We are not going to turn Momma into a bomb, Talmidge. We are going to do it my way.”
“Well, how about I blow it up with the shotgun once it’s over the fence? I could do that, you know: blow that sucker to Kingdom Come.”
“Either way, Talmidge, you’d bring those hunting club people down on us in a flash, and besides, that is no way to treat Momma’s remains. We are going to do it my way.”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
Two days before Christmas they drove to Vaughan from Tupelo, a four-hour pilgrimage under anyone else’s dominion, a mere three hours with Talmidge’s heavy foot hurtling the Dodge Ram south. Mid-afternoon they were there, alongside the road that had once been the main drag in Vaughan but now witnessed an occasional passerby and that was all, except for the steady parade of vehicles going in and out through the gate on the road that led to the hunting lodge. The game fence, high and tight in its glory, glistened in the sun as they stood and tried to make out what tree was what on the Old Home Place, some thirty yards from the edge of the highway. She worked from memory, he from photographs he could recall.
Long they stood at the fence studying the line of trees and shrubs and low-growing plants as she named what she could of what she remembered. He merely nodded. A couple of trucks crept by and men with orange caps studied them, but no one stopped and said anything. The two of them just acted like tourists, though Darlene could not imagine why any tourists would be down in there.
And then it was time. They walked back to the truck, and she opened the cardboard box and with a paring knife pried loose the end of the plastic container her momma’s remains were in and lifted out the plastic bag, secured with a tie that one might use for kitchen garbage. She undid the tie and opened the bag.
“Load her up,” she said to her husband. “And be quick. There’re too many of those damned trucks going by to suit me.”
Talmidge, bless him, lost as he was at this enterprise, stared at her a few seconds, then snapped the hook ring from the big blue ornament Darlene had removed from its velvet box and inserted one of his reloading powder funnels and dipped a big hand into his mother-in-law’s ashes and slowly dribbled her into the ornament until it was nearly full, probably a good pound. His lips said nothing. His eyes said nothing.
Then he snapped the hook ring back onto the ornament and hefted it for her.
“This is probably the craziest goddamn thing I’ve ever done. Are you ready?”
“Yes,” she said. “I am ready.” She hesitated, then said, “But you have got to get it right. You have got just one shot.”
“Alright, Darlene.” He held the big blue ball out to her. “Hold Momma a minute.”
A big man in anybody’s book, Talmidge removed his coat, slid up the sleeve of his sweatshirt, looked up and down the road, accepted the blue ball, and dropped into a pitcher’s stance. Then he reared back and cocked his arm and when it went forward, the ornament arched high, far above the game fence, seemed to hesitate against the blue sky forever, then fell into the stark limbs of an oak and shattered into a great poof of silver and blue fragments and ashes, and as they stood watching, it all came down, easy and soft as snow.
“My God, my God,” Darlene whispered as her mother’s ashes lightly settled onto the ashes of what once had been her home.
Then a voice came, as if from the sky itself: “Such crystal shells, shattering and avalanching, you’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.”
“Talmidge?” She stared at him for what to an onlooker might have seemed like a full minute.
“Sorry,” he said. “It just come to me.”
“It’s from Frost,” she said, “from Robert Frost. From a poem called ‘Birches’.”
He shrugged and turned to get in the truck. She smiled and looked one more time toward the trees, then got in beside her husband and took his hand in hers and kissed him.
“My husband quoted Robert Frost.”
He looked at her and grinned. “It was nothing. I told you, it just come to me, something from junior high maybe.”
They took their time going back, electing to travel the Natchez Trace, which Talmidge usually hated, since it held him to fifty. This time he seemed okay with it, even smiled now and then. As the remaining brilliant colors of late fall slid past them, Darlene’s heart was doing a little dance—Momma had come home for Christmas and Talmidge had quoted Frost.