It happened (the death, I mean) in a hospice out in West Flagler, a hike from Miami, and no one really wanted to spend gas money getting there after Grandpa passed. Mom went back to work, Uncle Jordan flew back to New York, and all us kids were still going to school. It was like nothing had ever happened.
Of course, after my little brother started having the nightmares, everyone went a little crazy. It was, I think, the look in his eyes, as he woke screaming. Something about his eyes and the way his face squished into itself with distress made me uneasy. Like Ian’s was the true face of mourning, and we should all adjust our behavior accordingly, although I guess everyone was behaving as they should, even before Ian’s nightmares began. I had a lump of numb in my chest that seemed to ooze coldness on even the muggiest autumn afternoons, so I couldn’t blame Mom’s flat refusal to talk about Grandpa in anything but the present tense. Beyond informing the funeral home that Grandpa was to be cremated, Mom was lost and confused. She began spending twelve or fourteen hours at a time at work. Debtors and other condolence givers called and were ignored.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework, and one of my older sister picks up the phone and greets the person on the other line, a Mr. Range. He speaks slowly into Hannah’s ear, a long rumble of words that roll through the telephone wires and echo in the background after he finishes talking. She hangs up the phone and turns to me.
“Grandpa’s ashes have been ready for us to pick up for 3 weeks,” Hannah says, without a flicker of an eyelid.
“What?” I say, then, “Where?” Hannah flips her hair over her shoulder, and saunters out of the room, calling back, “Range Funeral Home, on Grand Avenue.” She passes Milagros in the doorway.
I remain in the kitchen while Milagros cooked dinner, pretending to do my math homework, and thinking about how unfair it is that Veronica Maldonado’s article is running in our school paper that week. It makes my stomach clench, remembering the way she giggled at me when Mr. D announced that my article was a “solid effort,” but going in the Back Up drawer.
The Academy of Arts and Minds Times isn’t exactly an award winning newspaper, but I take reporting seriously, and I spent a lot of time on the article. I’d even asked Milagros to edit it for me. I can’t bear to see the disappointment in her eyes when I tell her that my article on the stress of standardized testing had been passed over in favor of Veronica’s piece debating the finer points of tanning: topless (“no tan lines”) versus top on (“tan lines prove you actually have a tan”).
“What are you thinking about?” Milagros asks. Her black hair was tucked behind her ear like a neat little curtain. She looks like she’s my mom’s age, maybe 45, but I know she’s older. She watches me back. It’s part of her job as an auntie/family friend/gramma.
I shrug, and viciously carve my name into the line at the top of each geometry worksheet and feel even sadder for myself. Some things just turn out a certain way—death never loses, and Hannah is right all of the time, and two halves make a whole. I give up on my math homework and watch Milagros cook. She isn’t gifted in the culinary arts; in fact, she is mildly cursed. She’s making mini-pizzas out of hot dog buns. The buns lie in grim rows across a cookie sheet, dolloped with canned tomato sauce. Milagros sprinkles grated cheese over everything and put the pan in the oven.
She says, “There—once that melts and Ian sets the table, we’re ready for dinner. Ian!” Bumping and crashing noises come from the living room. Milagros shakes her head.
“That boy is gonna kill himself one day. Come on now, Eli, tell me what’s really going on.”
I can’t bring myself to lie to her. I say, “My article that I wrote for the paper, it wasn’t picked for this week’s issue.” I hang my head in shame. Milagros laughs.
“That’s it? Mija, you’re a freshman, give yourself some growing room before you try to get published.”
“They chose Veronica’s piece instead!” Milagros says, “Veronica Maldonado? She’s a good writer. What’s her article about?”
I’m hurt. Milagros usually takes my side. “Who cares!” My voice rises. “She wrote about tanning beds! I did actual research, but she got to laugh in my face when the final picks were chosen during Newspaper. I hate her! Her article, and her voice, and especially her laugh!” I stop talking because Milagros is laughing again. She rubs my back sympathetically.
“You hate her laugh? That’s a useless thing to hate. Everyone laughs differently and everyone cries differently, and everyone has to do both at one point or another, so don’t judge lest ye be judged.” I flinch away from her soothing hands and glare at her.
“She wouldn’t even have been laughing—she wouldn’t even have cared about beating me if Hannah hadn’t embarrassed her last week by asking Alex to the Homecoming dance.” Milagros folds her hands in front of her. She isn’t going to say anything, but I’m on a roll.
“Hannah just had to ask Veronica’s ex-boyfriend of all boys. God, she’s so selfish! She’s known them both since elementary school, she should have known that Veronica would get mad!” I can hear myself getting hysterical, but it’s too late, I’ve already thought the words, and now my mouth is pumping automatically, trying to get them out of me before I burst with anger. Milagros watches me calmly.
“She should have asked someone else. It’s just like Grandpa’s ashes. She doesn’t care!” I stop talking, surprised at what I said, and drop my head into my arms. I feel Milagros’ hands stroking my back again.
“So that’s what this is about. We’ll go get Grandpa’s ashes tomorrow, honey, me and you, before I pick up my sister from the airport.” Ian runs into the kitchen and asks for plates. “And Ian too!”
“Me too, what?” Ian asks.
“Nos vamos a funeraria mañana,” Milagros responds, giving him the plates.
“Why?” Ian asks.
“We’re picking up Grandpa’s ashes,” I say.
Ian looks concerned. “His ashes?” No one has ever described cremation to Ian, a fact that Milagros and I realize in this that very moment. Milagros explains what happened to Grandpa’s body, and I see my chance to escape the kitchen, and Milagros’ sympathy, and sneak out of the door.
Milagros’ sister’s flight gets in early the next day, and Milagros calls me and leaves a message that I listen to after school. She is sorry, but she won’t be able to take us to the funeral home today. Ian doesn’t want to wait, though, so he pleads with me until he convinces me to walk to Range right now to pick them up. We walk with Hannah to Smoothie King, since it’s on the way to the funeral home. She works there most weekdays after school, scooping non-fat froyo and protein powder, wearing a bright turquoise (or orange, or pink, or lime green) t-shirt that reads “Smoothies are for suckers!” Before Hannah ducks inside, she puts her hand on my arm. I think she means it to be reassuring, but I can’t tell.
She says, “I can go with Jerry to pick up Grandpa, you know?” I shake my head.
“No, I’ll do it. You have work, and I promised Ian that I would do this with him.” Then Ian and I say goodbye and head to the funeral home to collect Grandpa’s remains.
The afternoon sun is boiling against the pavement, and Ian is panting after the first block. Range Funeral Homes (“Home on the Range for your Loved Ones in HeavenTM”) is three blocks north of our house, and 2 blocks west of school, so we don’t have far to go. School is in the Grove, and Range is on the edge of the West Grove. We pass the park and Ian waves at the clumps of old men playing dominoes in wrinkled guayaberas. We’re walking up the side-path to the funeral home when a group of kids circles past on bicycles. Ian waves at them. The kids laugh and sneer, and the skinniest one stand up on his pedals and yells, “The hell is wrong with this kid—hey, you freak, you an albino or something? Why the fuck you waving at us?” The rest of the group cackles and pedals closer.
I judge the distance between our current location and Range’s front door, but as I walk faster, pulling Ian along with me, the front door opens and a tall, wiry woman strides out. She halts at the edge of the porch and yells at the kids, “Y’all better get your hineys away, now,” and turns to me and Jerry and smiles hugely at us with her red-lipsticked mouth, and asks if we want to come inside for a glass of limeade. The building is no more than a large bungalow, and has the comfortable lived-in feel of a home. Crocheted doilies lie in luxurious polyester sprawl across any open surface, and reproduction still life paintings line the walls. The woman looks younger than she did out in the sun, maybe 30 or 35, and she walks silently, like a cat. She makes up for it with constant chatter.
Her name is Sweetie Pie Range, and yes, that’s the name on her birth certificate. Sweetie Pie laughs, and leads us into the kitchen in the back of the funeral home, which is yellow and small, and smells like cake and sandalwood. There’s a cone of incense burning on the counter. Me and Ian sit down at the round kitchen table while she messes around with a pitcher of limeade and talks about her recent return to Miami, and how she hates the humidity here, but at least she gets to run the family business.
“Course, I could’ve just gone back to school, maybe gotten a culinary degree. Can you pass me the sugar, sugar?” Sweetie Pie looks at Ian, who starts back in surprise. He’s been sitting watching her with his chin in his hands, staring at her like she’s the Madonna. She kind of looks like it, with the afternoon sun melting all over her skin and turning her puff of dark hair into a nimbus.
Sweetie Pie laughs again, and apologizes; she’s bad with names. I pass over the canister and try not to think about Sweetie Pie returning the favor within the next half hour. Except that it will be Grandpa’s ashes in the jar instead of sugar. I wonder which is heavier. My heart trembles briefly.
Sweetie Pie is talking again.
“I’m a great cook, least that’s what people say. But my Daddy was struggling after my mother died, so I cut my losses in New Mexico and came back down to Miami to run the funeral home. And now here I am!” Sweetie Pie beams at us again, and I begin to understand why the name stuck. Her mobile, secret face is mesmerizing, with its deep dimples and sockets and hollows. Her nose wrinkles, and I wrinkle mine too. I sip the limeade, which is thick and violently sweet. By the time she gets around to asking what we’re doing there, I know I want to be Sweetie Pie Range when I get old.
No matter that Sweetie Pie is long and lean with generous curves, the kind that are about 35% courtesy of the gym, the other 65% pure luck. She is like a synchronized swimmer, moving her limbs so slow, deliberately. She is Grace. I despair. I am short and skinny and awkward, with a mess of dark ringlets that would make Medusa think twice. I’m unable to look away even as I am embarrassed by how far I fall short of this woman. Again my heart beats faster.
And what can I say? I was sixteen and an optimist, despite — or perhaps because of — my crippling shyness . I didn’t see myself as I knew people at school saw me: as the little sister of a billion Raphaels. More bluntly, I saw myself as being apart from my family. I was young and innocent and arrogant enough to hope that anything in the world that I wanted for my own, I could have.
So I make my first mistake.
I tell Sweetie Pie that we are there to pick up Grandpa’s ashes. Her features draw up into the center of her face, like light being sucked into itself, and everything is business. I watch the transformation with awe. She is, if possible, even more beautiful than before. I am desperate, grasping at the table, fighting the urge to lay myself out at her feet. I lick the sugar and lime pulp off my lips and feel it dissolve into my mouth. The incense is in my nose and my head.
Thump thump thump THUMP.
My pulse is in my throat. My fingers and toes are freezing in the air-conditioned kitchen. I feel clammy and dizzy, and I’m only really hearing every fifth word Sweetie Pie is saying. Service. Ashes. Payment. Shrine. The room brightens and comes into focus again.
“You wanna walk with me back to the shrine room to get his ashes?”
I nod at Sweetie Pie, who tells Ian to stay put at the kitchen table, or play in the memorial garden if he likes. He bounds outside and prowls around the engraved plaques that have been set into the trees or ground. He seems to have forgotten what we’re here to do.
“It’s funny, he looks like your grandfather,” Sweetie Pie says under her breath. She looks between me and Ian, and I think she’s probably wondering how his face and mine both were painted by the same brushstrokes. Sir Angel and Miss Demon; what a pair.
I don’t think she expects me to answer her, but I do.
“Yeah, Ian got Grandpa’s blond hair. And I have this stuff,” I say, pulling on a strand of dark hair. I let it go and it bounces back up. Sweetie Pie looks at me with a little caress in her eyes, like she knows a good secret about me, the Somebody likes you and I know who it is! look. Her voice is warm again.
“There’s people would kill for your hair, sweetie. You know, you look a little like your mama’s older sister. Now she was beautiful!”
At first I don’t think I’ve heard Sweetie Pie right, although it takes me a good ten seconds to care, because this is the closest that anyone’s ever gotten to calling me beautiful. But my mouth tastes faintly bitter, and I’m slowly becoming immune to Sweetie Pie’s mind-bending smile. I flap the fog away from her words.
“My mama never had an older sister,” I say.
Sweetie Pie shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “No, I’m sure of it. That picture your grandpa brought in last summer of himself standing in a doorway in between his two daughters.”
I grab onto the only part of the statement that makes sense and ask, “Grandpa was here last summer? You remember?” Sweetie Pie nods and beckons me through the kitchen door. The air feels sticky. The shakiness returns. Sweetie Pie clips smartly down the low, dim hallway, back to business as usual. She says Grandpa rode his bike to Range every day one week last July, and each day he brought her something different: a will, funeral wishes, the deposit check, and a picture. He was planning his own funeral. It wasn’t uncommon for clients to request such things. Sweetie Pie never judged (and rarely denied) client requests, understanding the lucrative business of marketing a service that could never be fully experienced by its buyer.
It was strange that the man was by himself. Usually clients came with backup, prepared for the inevitable waves of tears. Not George Robinson. He came alone, and he hadn’t gotten the tiniest bit emotional, not even when he picked out the typeface for his complimentary memorial stone on visit number 5. Sweetie Pie, intrigued by this stoicism, asked him why he brought no one. Didn’t he have family?
George pulled a photograph out of his wallet and gave it to Sweetie Pie. She looked at it, and felt that she understood much more and much less than before she first looked at the two girls, for they must be related. One only had to look at the matching pairs of deep set eyes looking at the camera, and the two dimpled chins, and the faces themselves, upside-down triangles creased with twin smiles. She noticed that one had cat-eyes, the other, almond-shaped eyes. Sweetie Pie handed him back the photo, and didn’t mention family again.
“He’s tough, your Grandpa. Was tough.” We’re at the shrine door. Sweetie Pie pauses, and she looks almost apologetic. “Hey — I’m sorry your grandpa died.”
I nod my head mechanically at the familiar words. My head is swimming with tart dark sweetness, and I know that I need to get into the shrine, away from Sweetie Pie and her talks of secret aunts and burned pictures. Even when I stumble into the dark room toward the table underneath the blue-curtained window at the back, her voice follows after me, booming into corners, scattering shadows. Her voice is like the hard point of a diamond; it carves away at me until I am formless.
“It’s strong, too, you coming here to pick up the ashes by yourself.” But I’m not strong, I try to say, I’m weak. My mouth fails me. Sweetie Pie’s words echo around the room and it’s impossible to tell where they are coming from, or where she stands. I can’t trust my eyes; they’re burning and leaking, and I begin to sob. I walk toward the window side of the room so slowly I could have been crawling. Bright blueness flutters from underneath the curtains. My heart throbs in time with the flickering sun. Every inch closer is a hundred pounds more pressure on my lungs. I breathe out with a whoosh, and then breathe in, trying to force more air down my throat. I reach the table and grab for the jar sitting upon it. It is hard and cool in my hands. I pause. Everything explodes.
I think I’m floating on dust, on ashes, high on Sweetie Pie Range’s burned honey voice. It wraps around my cold body like a flaming shawl, and I clutch it tight. We sink fast and hard, and I’m inside out and upside down, and spinning like a top, and the whole time I’m laughing hysterically, and Sweetie Pie is crouching next to me, rubbing my back in soothing small circles, and we’re burning a path through blue water, up, up out of the deeps, up out of the blackness, until we burst into the sun.