The estate sale items are displayed on a shaded porch that wraps around the old Victorian like a ruffled skirt. A tall, thin woman with gray hair in frizzy braids flutters between tables, rearranging cups and saucers. She's wearing an ankle-length floral muumuu and dark sunglasses.
“It's all priced to go,” she tells Miranda. “Look at this marvelous bone china tea set. My mother bought it in England after the war.”
Miranda doesn't need a tea set or any other gimcracks. But she feels drawn to a porcelain vase, priced at $9. The vase is pale ivory, hand painted with a spray of lilac, and plumply curved at the bottom. There are two handles at the narrow neck and, incongruously, a cork loosely fitted into the opening. It would look lovely anywhere in her home, perhaps best on the living room bookshelves. She carries it off wrapped in newspaper and crammed into her shopping bag with greens and fruit from the nearby farmer's market.
She and her husband used to drive to that market almost every weekend till he got too sick for outings. Lloyd would eat a lunch of barbecued ham hocks and cornbread there. He also loved exploring the old quarter of town, where his mother had been raised. Would he have been familiar with that turreted Victorian? The house is also up for sale, along with the bone china tea set and an assortment of antique furniture. Might he have known who lived there? Friends of his grandmother, perhaps? He might have played as a boy on that sloping lawn under what had once been a giant elm, now only a stump. She was almost certain he'd told her something about that house and who lived there. She could have asked, but the woman with the sunglasses, after securing the sale, had seemed preoccupied and unapproachable.
Miranda puts the vase on the coffee table and goes into the kitchen to prepare dinner. She fears she will never grow accustomed to cooking for one. She hates all this fuss for herself. On the plus side she can eat whatever she likes, fresh vegetables and fish instead of hamburgers and fries. She'd tried to change Lloyd's diet, but he was a stubborn man. He knew what he wanted and that's what he got, and look what happened to him. She isn't sure she believes bad diets cause cancer, but she's not taking any chances herself. Still, she'd give it all up to have him back alive and well. She'd eat burgers and fries every night and forgo vegetables, if that would restore Lloyd to her.
Sometimes she hears his slow lilting drawl in her head. “Honey, you know I'm not going to eat any of that grass, no matter how you cook it.” She sees his crooked grin, the stained teeth. The pale blue eyes with white showing beneath the irises, the sultry come hither look.
When the phone rings, she hurries to pick it up, grateful to be rescued from self-pity. It's her sister Claudia, calling from thousands of miles away to hector her. Miranda sits and listens to the familiar litany. “It's been two years. You shouldn't stay home every night. Go out with your girlfriends. Get out of town. Visit your children and grandchildren. Visit me.”
“Why don't you visit me, Cloudy?”
“I'm still working. You're retired.”
They tell each other whatever news there is and say “I love you” and hang up. Then she's alone again. Except for Mr. Darcy the cat, who has hopped on her lap, but skitters away when she stands up. The cat skulks along the wall and disappears into the darkened living room. A little later she hears a sharp thump and a startled meow.
She turns on the overhead light. The cat, nowhere in sight now, has knocked the vase over. Oh why didn't she put it up on the shelf? But it's alright. It fell across a stack of magazines that cushioned it. She picks it up. One handle has cracked and broken off. That can be easily repaired. The cork has fallen to the floor and there’s a fine gray powder on the table. She shakes the vase. Something sloughs around inside. Uneasy, she fetches the flashlight from its place by the front door and shines it inside the vase.
“It's a funeral urn!” she cries.
Mr. Darcy darts out from under the couch and flees the room.
She takes a deep breath and marches back into the kitchen, carrying the vase in both hands before her. She places it carefully on the table. Then she straightens out the newspaper it had been wrapped in and shakes out the contents. Those are ashes alright, fine and possibly a little sticky, about a fist full. She shuts her eyes and covers her mouth with one hand. Normally she is not squeamish, but she finds this repellant. She feels a cold chill despite the heat.
Pull yourself together, sugar. She hears Lloyd's voice again.
She pours the ashes back into the vase, shaking out every last bit from the paper. Then she puts it on a closet shelf where the cat can’t go. And finally she sinks into a chair.
She is appalled. How could that woman have put a burial urn up for sale? Whose ashes could they be?
Mr. Darcy approaches her mewing. Maybe those are the ashes of the deceased mother's cat? But still, the daughter should have known about it and if not, should be told,
“It wasn't your fault, Mr. Darcy,” she soothes. “I shouldn't have left it on the coffee table.”
It's too late now to drive back across town. She'll glue the handle on tonight and return the vase in the morning.
She's seen cremated ashes once before, which is how she reckons the amount of ash isn't enough for a human body. When their neighbor and long-time friend was dying, having outlived everyone in his immediate family, she and Lloyd promised to sprinkle Harvey’s cremains in the Gulf of Mexico. Lloyd did not approve of cremation. His church considered it a heathen practice. Yet he hired a motorboat and they went out into the gulf with that box of ashes and put what was left of their friend in the water.
“I'll never see Harvey again,” he said, which seemed really obvious, but she knew what he meant. He would never see Harvey in the afterlife. Unsaved and incinerated, Harvey had relinquished his pass to the Pearly Gates.
How she wished she could believe in Lloyd's vision of heaven. Because she could not, he had died believing she was damned. He’d said as much: “Girl, you never accepted Jesus, so we're not going to be together again.” It was after the cancer got to his brain or he would never have said such an awful thing, though surely he was thinking it all those years, trying in vain to convert her.
Miranda tosses in bed most of the night. It's no use. She never could and she can't now accept Jesus as her savior anymore than she could opt into a hundred other religions. It's Claudia’s fault. When they were teen-agers her sister convinced her there is no God, never mind the son of God. And why then did she fall for a Southern Baptist?
Actually, she didn't. Though she's loved Lloyd dearly for 40 years, he practically had to hog tie her and drag her to the altar. She wasn't interested in men or sex or women, either. She was an athlete in college, fleet of foot. She could outrun most of the boys, like Atalanta in the Greek myth. Lloyd could never catch her, not with that limp from a hunting accident. But he courted her doggedly. He wooed her family and friends as well. Everyone was rooting for Lloyd. She succumbed at last because she wanted children, and she knew he was a good man. He would be a good father, she thought. And oh he was.
The big surprise was not so much her husband's eager and tender love making, but her own response. That is when she fell for him. She lies in bed remembering and can almost feel the weight of his arm across her stomach, as if he were still sleeping next to her. She thinks that was the only heaven they will ever know.
In the morning Miranda scrubs her face. Her eyes are red rimmed from lack of sleep. She is too wrought up for breakfast, but forces herself to drink a little orange juice. She sets off downtown with the vase in her shopping bag, cushioned with crumpled newspaper.
Traffic is stalled on the bridge over the bay. How could she have forgotten about rush hour? Lloyd would have waited before setting out to avoid the commute. Mrs. Impatient, he used to call her. She fiddles with the radio but all she can pull in is gospel music or fundraisers, so she snaps it off.
That new paint job on the dashboard is really awful, she decides. Lloyd’s plastic Jesus had been cracked and dirty, and the detailer said it impeded her view. It might even have been illegal. But now the dashboard is scarred. A shadow of the statuette is still there, like a scraped stigmata. She’ll have to clean it off, somehow.
It's almost ten when she pulls up to the old house with its gingerbread fretwork. The witch's house, she remembers now. That's the story Lloyd told her, and his mother told him. Bad little boys were baked into gingerbread in that house.
A U-haul van is parked out front. A man in baggy Bermuda shorts is helping the woman load boxes into the van. She is wearing the same muumuu and sunglasses as yesterday but now her hair is pulled up in a knot atop her head.
“Excuse me,” Miranda says. “I have something that belongs to you.” And she takes the vase out of the bag.
The woman turns and stares.
“Purchases are final,” she says. “I don't want anything back.”
“Please, let me explain. There are ashes in it. This is a burial urn.”
“What?” The woman leans against the van. Her face is pale, as if drained of blood. “What else can happen,” she murmurs.
“Let me have a look at that,” the man says, taking the vase from Miranda. He peers inside. He sticks one finger in it.
“Oh, don't do that,” Miranda cries. “That could be someone you know. Or knew.”
“I had no idea what was in there,” the woman says. “I thought it was just a vase.”
“Good God,” the man says. “Could this be Daddy?”
“That's not possible. We scattered Daddy's ashes fifteen years ago.”
They all look at the vase, plump and innocent of meaning.
“I don't know what else it could be, sis,” he says at last. “Mom must have kept some of Daddy's ashes all these years.”
“I can believe it,” the sister says. She takes off the sunglasses and wipes her eyes. “She'd talk to him like he was right there in the room with her.”
“But why wouldn't she have told you about the ashes?” Miranda asks.
Brother and sister exchange wry glances.
“She didn't tell us much of anything,” the woman says and looks away. She puts the sunglasses back on.
“She probably just forgot about it,” the man explains. “She had senile dementia.”
“Could it be a cat or a small dog?” Miranda wonders aloud. Or a little boy, she can’t help but think.
“We never had any pets,” The woman says, her voice flat.
The man hands the vase to his sister.
“When we pick up mom's cremains, we can add these to it,” he says. “Is that a plan?”
She nods agreement. “It must be what she intended. They'll be together now.”
She turns to Miranda. “It really was very kind of you. Do you want the vase? You paid for it. We can put the ashes in something else.”
“Oh no, not at all. I couldn't.”
“Let me refund whatever it cost. Here, is ten dollars enough?” She digs into her pocket.
“No, please.” Miranda backs away. “There must be some dementia research fund to donate it to.”
She hurries over to her car, not even turning to wave good-bye.
The car splutters and stalls in her haste to leave. She turns the key again, slowly, the way Lloyd taught her, and the engine purrs. But the hand on the wheel is trembling.
I’m ridiculous, she tells herself. It's not some dirty old ashes that matter. She looks at the splotch on the dashboard and thinks that shouldn’t matter either, but maybe she’ll leave it just like it is, after all.