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Marlene Olin

Dearly Departed

The thought of death is never far from Margaret’s mind. She watches her diet and exercises daily. She never doubts that she will live a long and productive life. But at the age of sixty, her tolerance of stupid and selfish people stands in short supply. And nothing makes her happier than wishing them dead.

It’s a typical morning. She eats her oatmeal—unsweetened save for a sprinkling of cinnamon—and sips her green tea. She waters her plants and feeds the cat. But her day is not complete without the newspaper. A glance at her horoscope. A quick scanning of the front page. A look at the obituary columns to see if anyone she knows has actually died. Only after reading the paper, does Margaret feel ready to tackle the world.

She opens up the front door of her home and surveys her lawn. The Miami Herald, as usual, is nowhere in sight. She peers under the hedge and along the sidewalk. Finally she spies the familiar plastic wrapping underneath her car. She bends down on her knee and reaches under the chassis, her fingers groping, her arm aching, but no...that idiot Jerome has managed to find the sweet spot right in the middle.

“Patience, Margaret,” says her husband. “Patience.”

She goes back into the house, gets her car keys, mumbles curses under her breath. Then suddenly, like a ray of sunshine slicing through the clouds, a eulogy pops into her head. She pictures an elderly priest droning, a kerchiefed mother crying. An unadorned coffin in a ramshackle church.

“Many of you sitting here today are mourning a shortened life. Jerome may not have finished school. He may not have kept a job. He may have been incompetent in more ways than we can imagine.....But God in his infinite wisdom accepts all into his embrace...”

Instantly, Margaret feels better. Though the world is mired in ineptitude, inside her head all wrongs are righted, the blackboard erased clean.

A half hour later she drives to school. Margaret teaches English as a second language. Her classroom is filled mostly with miscreants who have neither an appreciation for nor a middling acquaintance with the subject they are learning. Twenty immigrants from varying countries in Central and South American. A few from the Caribbean. All of them with differing dialects and accents. All of them hating each other. The Chileans hate the Bolivians and Peruvians. The Cubans hate the Mexicans. Everybody hates the Argentines. The tower of Babel is a paragon of unity compared to her class.

She pulls into a parking lot littered with beer cans and condom wrappers, half-eaten Ding Dongs and emptied soda cups. The school sits next to a convenience store. The detritus of hurried lunches and midnight snacks blows like tumbleweeds. A dumpster smells like someone dumped a carcass. A pack of motorcycles billows black. Vrooms.

Margaret makes her way inside the building and sits down at her desk. It’s fake wood, the laminated top peeling off in sharp little curls. The A/C is set to seventy but it’s a fake thermostat. The real thermostat is someplace else, controlled by a bureaucrat who has no idea how hot it gets in windowless classrooms built solely with air-conditioning in mind. Sweat drips down her spine and clings to her blouse. She opens her lesson plan. Then she waits ten minutes after the bell rings to start. If she’s lucky, half of her students will show up.

“Mrs. Margaret. I need a note. My boss say he need a note so I miss work.”

Ricardo is Colombian. A crisp white shirt, clean nails, clean shaven. He supports three generations of illegal aliens. His grandparents and parents. A wife and soon a child. His boss, the foreman of a construction crew, thinks Ricardo is juggling two jobs. In truth he’s juggling three. Somehow he manages to squeeze in Margaret’s class. She doubts the poor man sleeps.

“Mi madre. She need physical therapy. If he fire me, I am destroyed.”

In the back, the class clown shouts. “If you’re fired, Ricardo, they’ll hire someone else.”

Whatever natural assets God has gifted Ricardo are missing in Ramon’s DNA. While Ricardo is lean and taut, Ramon is soft and doughy. A plump leg lays in the aisle like a water-soaked log.

Ramon’s on a roll, enjoying it. “They’ll hire someone quicker. Someone stronger.”

Like drowning bodies, her students tend to drag each other down. Ricardo, she had hoped, would be a survivor. Ramon slouches in his chair. A pink bubble blooms from his mouth then slowly recedes. But he’s not done. There’s always one last turn of the knife. “Someone handsomer, feo. Someone smarter.”

Life, Margaret knows, is fundamentally unfair. Luck always tilts the scales. Ramon hails from three generation of coffee importers, each generation richer than the next. The guy drives to school in a BMW convertible. He’s only stuck in the class because he has no place else to go. His parents’ are at their wits’ end. His probation officer is at his wits’ end. His family has pulled and twisted the system like a giant wad of gum.

“Dis is not your business, gordito,” says Ricardo.

For a fat guy, Ramon moves quickly. In seconds he is by Ricardo’s side, opening and closing his fists. Margaret jumps from her desk and sticks her arm between them.

“This is a mistake,” says her husband. “A big mistake.”

Ramon pulls back his hand, takes aim, and misses. Instead he whacks Margaret in the jaw.

Margaret has no idea how long she lies on the floor. But a vision sweeps over her like a cloud. A church festooned with flowers. A priest in full regalia. A boy swinging incense on a chain.

“Let us remember poor Ramon. Was he a cherub? No! Was he an angel? No! Was he an innocent? No! If Jesus himself saw him on the street he would turn and walk the other way. In the name of the Father, and The Son, and The Holy Ghost let us pray for his soul and say Amen.”

Class is dismissed early. The police come and go. Ramon, smirking, is shuffled off in handcuffs. There is no doubt that he will boomerang back with an ear-to-ear grin and a flashier car. Margaret, her head throbbing, decides to head home. She drives by the grocery store to pick up a few things along the way.

The parking lot is jammed. It’s nearly noon and every civil employee in Dade County is jockeying for a spot, trying to grab a to-go sandwich from the deli counter. Rescue trucks. Fire trucks. Patrol cars. Margaret creeps up and down the rows in her Camry. Roomy but not too big. Fifty thousand miles and not a scratch on it. She knows if she’s patient someone will leave. How much time can you spend at a grocery store, for Christ’s sake! So she circles.

Row by row she looks for brake lights, an opened door, a sign. She waits behind a car for five minutes while a woman talks on her cell phone. Honks her horn and shrugs her shoulders. Wrap up the conversation, lady! Then she gives up and moves on.

“You can do this, Margaret!” says her husband.

Finally she gets smart. She follows an old man pushing a cart....slowly slowly slowly...and breathes a sigh of relief when he stops just in front of her. He points his key at the car and clicks. The front door opens and closes. His rear red lights magically appear.

Margaret’s running her grocery list in her head. A carton of milk. Some eggs. An omelet sounds good. She’s about to make her move when a cretin in a black pickup throws his truck in reverse, backs up twenty feet, and nearly smashes into her front fender.

The cretin is laying claim to the space. His pickup blocks the old man’s car, brings the flow of traffic to a standstill, creates havoc. Margaret looks in her rearview mirror and sees three cars behind her, honking. There’s enough room to back up three maybe four feet but then she’ll lose the parking spot. When she touches her jaw, pain radiates into her eyeballs. She doesn’t want to move. Why should she move? But life, Margaret knows, is unfair.

Suddenly the man in the pickup gets out of his vehicle. He stands in the street and in front of dozens of people points his middle finger in her direction. Margaret is thinking mass murderers, crazies with guns in their glove compartments, bullies with tire irons. As she backs up, an eulogy comes to mind.

The chapel is empty. A lone invisible voice addresses the casket. It seems to be on speakerphone, though perhaps it’s a recording. Yes, that’s it. A recording. Like voice mail. A pre-recorded one-size-fits-all message.

“Somewhere a mother holds a small dimpled hand. Somewhere a wife prepares a festive meal. But you, my friend, are alone. May your skin rot and your brains atrophy while you await redemption.”

As she circles the parking lot one more time, Margaret instantly feels better.

At last she arrives home. As is her habit, Margaret sets two places at the dining room table and eats supper at four o’clock. Her jaw stiffening, she can barely open her mouth to spoon in the eggs. She looks out the window hoping it’s dark out but no. The sun still sits plump in the sky. She supposes she can grade papers. She supposes she could putter around the garden. Instead she lies down on the sofa and turns on the TV.

The news is blaring from all three local stations. The presidential election is still a year away but the campaign has already started. Ridiculous statements spurt from each of the candidates. Noisome and nonsensical captions bubble from their lips. Within minutes Margaret feels her blood pressure spike. A bunch of cartoon characters all of them. Sleazy. Dopey. Grumpy.

“We’re the greatest country in the world, Margaret. It’s a privilege to be a citizen. We should count our blessings every day.”

When her husband Charles was alive, he always looked on the bright side. Lost the hearing in one ear while he served in Viet Nam. Lost a leg to diabetes. Still he woke up every morning with a smile on his face and a hand on Margaret’s shoulder. Such a strong capable hand.

She’s glued to the screen despite herself. The entire gaggle has entered a stage for a debate. They grab onto the podiums like sailors on a sinking ship, their fingers clawing, their mouths grimacing. Margaret wants to wipe the snarky expressions from each of their faces. She wants to force-feed them a few choice bars of Ivory Soap so that once and for all they tell the goddamned truth!

Instead she visualizes a gravesite, a field of gravesites, with one crucifix after another. The Secret Service guys are talking to each other on walkie talkies. A helicopter swoops overhead.

“Let us bow our heads,” says the President. “And thank these civil servants for their service to their communities and to our country. May God protect and keep these ingrates far away from us.”

At last the sun sets. Margaret drinks a glass of cold milk. She lotions the creases in her elbows and her knees. All of her bedtime rituals are performed but one. Wrapped inside her bathrobe, she sits down one last time in front of the television set and slips in a DVD.

At first there’s nothing but a blur of bodies. But as the camera focuses, a crowd of men and women dressed in their Sunday best find their way into the pews. Margaret sits in the front row a few feet from the pastor. And there on an elevated platform lies her husband’s casket, wreathed with hydrangeas and draped with an American flag.

Margaret breaks down and sobs. Bad things happen to good people while scoundrels and swindlers go unpunished. Charles was such a loving person. Such a kind person.

“Let us bow our heads,” says the pastor.

She has memorized each and every sentence of the service. Each handshake has been imprinted in her palm. Each voice is forever replayed. Grief has become Margaret’s religion and her balm. It’s the engine that drives each day and the salve that sweetens her dreams. And only when the clergyman finishes, only when the camera sweeps over the crowd of shaky shoulders and bobbing chins, will she sleep.

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