Barbara Greenbaum: Charms

marathonlitreview —  June 30, 2016 — Leave a comment

They’d been warned about the priest.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to…” He stopped and looked down at the little beaten book in his hand.

Swaying slightly, he flipped pages, cleared his throat, and began again, the faint smell of bourbon drifting over to Margo, who stood next to him. She took a small step back. Her hat lifted in the hot, humid breeze, and she reached up to hold it, feeling the hat pin that held it to the reddish-blond braid that wound around her head. The charms on her bracelet rustled as it slipped down on her thin arm.

Their mother had insisted on the private service, the hat, and the pin, a little black pearl dangling on the end.

“Your head should be covered,” she’d said. “And you shouldn’t be wearing jewelry, particularly not that bracelet. It’s too…” She’d never finished her thought.

Margo wasn’t sure why it mattered, didn’t argue, and kept it on. Momster, Andra had named her when they were young. They both called her that. They, Margo thought. No more they.

August had not been kind. The family cemetery plot rested in deep shade beneath a canopy of ash, oaks, and maples. At least here it was cooler. The Momster stood at Margo’s side, cringing within her black Chanel suit, her blue eyes invisible behind her oval dark glasses, her blond hair swept up beneath her black hat. Aside from the two of them and the priest, six black-suited pallbearers from the funeral parlor were the only attendants.

The priest glanced up when he found the right page. “We have come to lay to rest Andrea Olivia Martinard, our sister in Christ.”

“It’s Andra,” Margo corrected. The priest vacantly stared at her. “An-dra, our sister in Christ,” he said. He didn’t know her sister. He didn’t know any of them; the best they could get on short notice. Margo couldn’t remember the last time they’d been in a church.

“We should be bloody well done by now,” her mother whispered, glancing at her watch. Margo had wondered how long her mother would last. She’d never had much patience for Andra, and that wouldn’t change now that she was dead.

“We could have lunch afterward,” Margo had suggested that morning. She wanted to talk. They could tell stories and laugh like other people who say good-bye. Maybe even cry. But her mother wasn’t like other people. Why had she even bothered coming? Perhaps this was one ritual even her mother couldn’t avoid. Now she lived with husband number three, who had more interesting children, and had better places to be. No, Margo and her mother had gotten off separate planes that morning, and they’d be back on separate ones this afternoon. Smooch, smooch, bye, bye.

“Enough of this charade. I’m leaving. Call me later.”
“But it’s not…” Margo started, but her mother had already turned and walked back to her limo. Sighing, Margo returned her attention to the priest. He coughed in the middle of his sentence and lost his place. He fumbled once again with pages and stared at the page.
“Ashes to ashes.”
Andra to ashes.
“Dust to dust. We comment her body to the ground to sleep until the rise of all God’s creatures.”
She let it go. The priest’s voice became a hum, his words sloshing back and forth as he dribbled them from the prayer book. A fine spray of spit launched itself into the air and fell in front of her.
“Amen,” he said, looking rather confused at the empty spot next to Margo where her mother had been standing.
“Amen,” Margo repeated.
“I am so…sorry for your loss,” the priest said, pressing his hand into her own as if that would be of comfort. His bald head glistened with sweat. He had very blue, bloodshot eyes. “Sweet lady,” he said and toddled off back to his own car, thankfully with a nun behind the wheel.
“We’ll be returning now, Miss Martinard. May I escort you to your limo?” the head black suit asked.
“No, thank you.” Margo looked down at her sister’s coffin blanketed in a carpet of red roses and listened to the fading sounds of the car engines as they rolled away. When she looked back, she was alone except for the limo waiting silently up the hill. Time to go. But Margo couldn’t get her feet to move. Andra’s life was over. Margo’s relationship with her was over. What had happened to that?

A long time ago, when it was just the two of them, a string of houses to explore and nannies to torture, it had been wonderful. She looked down at the pale pair of Jimmy Choo sandals she’d bought for the occasion. Modest in terms of heel height. Horrible choice, her mother had said. So inappropriate to wear sandals to a funeral. Andra would have laughed. The amber color went so well with the bracelet.

From the corner of her eye, something moved. Turning, she saw a young man sitting on a marble bench off to the side beneath a huge tree, just outside the square border of their family plot. He sat with his elbows on his knees, looking at her, his eyes partly hidden by a mass of brown, curly hair that covered his forehead. A shovel leaned against the bench next to him, and a cigarette burned between two fingers. The gravedigger. Had to be. He sat not more than fifteen feet away and she hadn’t seen him.

“You can start whenever you like. I don’t mind,” she called.
He held his position and just kept looking.
“I said…”
“I heard you, Miss,” he said, flicking an ash. “I can wait while you pay your respects.” He took a drag on the smoke.
“I didn’t respect my sister,” she said. That sounded wrong. Andra hadn’t respected her. Had she respected anything? Reliably unreliable. She fingered the bracelet.
“Must have been sudden,” the gravedigger said.
“What? Oh, yes,” Margo said. “We thought she’d end up doing something stupid.”
“Heard she was young.” The digger didn’t look old himself. Mid to late twenties. Fair yet a bit leathery.
“Twenty-seven,” Margo said.
Margo nodded. “Our nanny used to say we were Irish twins,” she said. “Fourteen months apart.”
“Must have been pretty.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because you are,” he said. He took another draw on his smoke and then crushed it beneath his boot.
“You’re flirting with me at my sister’s funeral?”
“Just stating a fact,” he said, looking at her.
Margo looked back at the blanket of roses. “We didn’t look much alike.”
“Sisters always say that, don’t they?”
“You an expert on sisters?”
He chuckled. “Got five of them. All say the same thing. Put them next to each other and they look like a set.” He pulled a red thermos from beneath the bench and filled the top cup with coffee. “Want some? I haven’t touched it yet.”

She walked the distance between them, sat down, and took the cup from him. “Does it have sugar in it?”
“No. Just milk.”
She took a sip. “Thank you. It’s good.”
“Got something a little stronger if you’d like,” he said, pulling a pint bottle of Jameson from his back pocket and setting it down on the bench between them. She shook her head but he left the bottle there.
“She had very dark hair, almost black, with very hazel eyes. The kind that changed with what she wore.”
“You close?”
“When we were kids,” Margo said. The stone felt cool beneath her thighs. She tried to hand the cup back to him but he shook his head.
“Was she sick for a long time?”
“An overdose. So I guess you could say she was.”
He shook his head. “Shame.”
“Andra didn’t believe in limits.”
“Was it intentional?”
“Oh no, just carelessness.”
He nodded.
“Truth is, we don’t really know. My mother said no, anyway.” But the Momster would be the last to know anything about either of them.
“Your mother must be broken up.”
“I don’t know. She’s never broken up over anything.” Margo wished she could be like that. She touched the bracelet again, the damned bracelet.

The coffee smelled of cinnamon. She looked at him closely. He had a nose that seemed to flow directly out of his forehead. His eyes were a very pale gray, his brows dark, straight lines above them, his chin crusted with sparse reddish stubble. He had a birthmark in front of his right ear in the shape of a tear. A nice face for a gravedigger. If she’d been Andra, he’d be laughing by now, doing something her sister wanted him to do. Dancing, drinking, fucking. All of Andra’s usual possibilities. But she wasn’t Andra.
“So have you been doing this kind of work long?”
“It’s my second job. They call me when the other guy can’t make it.”
“The other guy?”
“Pete. They’re having a birthday party for him at the Grange. He’s eighty-one.”
“That’s old to be digging, isn’t it?”
He laughed. “He drives a backhoe. Still, it’s old.” Margo didn’t see a tractor, just a faded green pickup back behind a thicket of juniper bushes. “Only Pete gets to drive it.” He tapped the shovel that leaned up against the bench between them. “I get to dig.”
“You weren’t invited to the party?” Margo said, taking another sip of coffee and eyeing the Jameson.
“I’ll head down when I’m finished here.”
“I’m holding you up?”
“Not really. Let’s just say I like Pete, but his friends are as old as he is, and his grandkids and great-grandkids aren’t that good-looking.”

She glanced at the bottle. They’d started with Jameson that night in New York, a big-girl drink, Andra had said. Come on, Sissy, let’s get hammered.
“So why is your sister buried here?” he asked.
“My whole family is here. This whole square,” she said, pointing to the area in front of them. All the graves rested near a tall needle of pink granite on the far side. Gathered around it were more than a dozen rectangles of granite trying to look as if they somehow went together, “Martinard” on most of them. “My father is over there. That’s my great-great-grandfather under the big one; he was married three times, so all his wives are here, most of their kids, though a few of them got away.” Andra almost did, she thought. “How did you know she was young?”
“Pete told me.”
“So he knew about my sister?”
“Probably not. He just said: ‘Hey, Jed, we’ve got a young one today. Can you do her?’” He looked down. “Sorry. That didn’t sound right.”
“It’s okay. My sister would laugh at that. In fact, if my sister were sitting here right now, you’d probably want to.”
“Ah.” He held up the thermos. “More?”
She nodded. “Perhaps something a little stronger,” she said.
He unscrewed the bottle of Jameson.

Margo felt the edge. Not on the edge but the edge itself. Sitting on this bench, the dense green of the trees above her, the hot, solid air pressing in. She’d stepped up to this particular edge three, four times in her life, always with Andra. One more step and you can’t go back and be the same person afterward. The morgue had taught her that. One more lesson from her sister. Time to move on, she thought. But where?

Andra had danced on this edge so lightly. A prima ballerina of edges. Where had Margo gone? Her music. A budding collection of art books. The occasional lunch with Momster when she was in town. Was that all bad or, even worse, dull? If you didn’t bungee-jump your way through life, did that make you lifeless? She liked New York, her clean, white apartment, her half-mangled rescue cat, her job at the gallery, Saturday nights at the poetry club, the occasional fumble with the odd poet, the more frequent tussle with words. Wasn’t writing bad poetry enough? It should be, shouldn’t it?

She held out the cup, and he tipped the Jameson in. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” He smiled, a solid smile full of slightly overlapping, nicotine-stained teeth. She looked at the shovel. “Do you have another one of these?” she asked.
“I couldn’t let you do that.”
“It’s Margo,” she said, extending her hand.
“Nice to meet you.” His hands bore hard, dry calluses. “Jed.”

She took off the hat and laid it down on the bench, sticking the pin through it. “I want to do this.”

He fetched another shovel from his truck and handed it to her. Together they lifted the rose blanket off the coffin and set it aside. Using a small crank that squawked as he turned it, he loosened the straps that cradled the coffin, lowering it into the hole. They pulled the Astroturf off the mound of dirt and began to dig.

Margo could feel the back of the shovel beneath the center of her sandal as she pushed it into the dirt, an awkward motion at first, the handle feeling like a long elbow that wouldn’t tuck in. The sound of the dirt hitting the coffin sounded like a snare drum, but it didn’t take long for the sound and surface to disappear. She worked at one end and Jed at the other. The dirt was dark, like the tree bark around them, and felt loose and easy to move. Push, tilt, lift, dump. After a while she found a rhythm. She thought of Andra laughing, saying, I always knew you could get dirty, Sissy. When half the mound was moved, she stopped, stepped over to the bench, and took a long swig of the Jameson straight from the bottle. He joined her.
“Why do you have this?” she asked.
“Medicinal purposes.”
Margo nodded. “One of my sister’s favorite medicines.”

When they went back to work, the smell of dirt seemed stronger. The sweat ran now down her back, in between her breasts, in tiny rivers. The bracelet stuck to her arm, the dirt clinging to the sodden charms.

* * *

She’d lost it, or thought she had, the last time she and Andra were together in New York. It had been a humid night in September, unseasonably warm. They’d gotten caught in the rain in the park between bar stops, a flash downpour, her sister opening up her arms, Burberry raincoat flapping, head tilted back, mouth open, the lightning flashing behind them, their hair plastering their faces, Andra pulling Margo out from under a tree to dance in wide circles on the footpath by the pond, as if the two of them could drink up all the power of the storm.

They laughed and laughed and laughed, squishing together into the cab, dripping all the way back to Margo’s place, and then stripping off their clothes, leaving them in puddles on the floor, pushing each other into and out of the shower. That moment when Andra pulled her in, held her, the warm water running down their backs. Kissed her for too long. The taste of wine on her tongue. And Margo held on. Time had disappeared, drunk on the whole night. She remembered drying her hair, her fingers shaking. They’d passed out and when she’d woken up, Andra was gone.

She looked for it first around the apartment and then downstairs and back through the bars she remembered from the night before, saying the same thing again and again: It’s a Pandora bracelet, you know the kind? It’s a thick silver cord, and on it are these round charms. There are a couple of onyx ones and some with amber-colored stones, a couple of tiny snakes too, only they look more like tightly coiled springs. Her mother had given her two of the charms, and she’d collected the rest herself with her own money. Her favorites were the amber beads locked in a tiny silver circle that looked like a crown. She had two of everything.

The stupid bracelet. Andra denied it and Margo believed her. She always believed her. No limits, Andra said, but there should have been some, as least where Margo was concerned. Who decided the other was too far gone? Margo had done that but it was Andra who hadn’t returned her calls. Andra bailed on the trip to Boston. They’d always been terrible on the phone.    

What’s the point, Margo? I’m letting you off the hook.
What if I don’t want that?
You know, all Pandora had left was hope. That’s really a curse.
You took it, didn’t you.
Did you just figure that out?
You are not hopeless. You can give it back.
Too late, Sissy. I love you. I hope you know that.
Why? Don’t go. I love you too.

Music played in the background and a man laughed. The call ended, a click that explained nothing. Months later she’d gotten the call from the doorman. The morgue, her sister on a gurney, a white sheet pulled back, and a gaunt, blue-lipped face. The envelope, her effects they’d called it, contained a red wallet, keys, a hard pack of Kools, and the bracelet. An odd feeling of relief and the guilt that trailed it. Now the bracelet’s charms, crusted with earth, stuck to her skin. Why had she worn it? How could she not?

* * *

“Hey—take it easy there,” Jed said. Margo’s shovel hit the tarp at the bottom of the dirt pile. She stopped, breathless, that horrible moment clinging to her like her sweat-soaked dress. Jed took the shovel and Margo went back to the bench, sat down, and took a drink.

“Are you all right?” Jed asked. She nodded but didn’t want to answer. She felt hot and dizzy. He left her, produced a rake from the back of his truck, and pulled the remaining soil off the tarp on the ground and onto Andra’s grave. Margo watched the smaller mound form over her sister. As Jed folded up the ground tarp, flattened grass reappeared.

There would be a headstone with Andra’s name, the dates, and perhaps something else, but right now Margo couldn’t think of anything that would capture the essence of her sister.

She and Jed placed the flower blanket back over the center of the grave mound and stood side by side, looking at it.
“Looks pretty with the flowers, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” he said, handing her the bottle of Jameson. “I could get you a job digging if you’re interested.”

She laughed and took another swig, handing the bottle back to him. She looked down at the blisters rising beneath the dirt on her hands.
“I have a place we can clean you up if you’d like,” he said, handing her the bottle again. “Just down there.” He pointed to a path. “See that little chapel? Well, it’s really our tool shed. We’ve got water in there.”

The bottle rubbed against her sores. The little stone building looked like a miniature church. Far enough to drive. Taking another swig, she looked at him and saw it all play out.

Andra would have taken his hand, climbed into his truck, and driven with him down the hill. She would take off her clothes slowly so that his eyes could follow the white curve of her hips, and feel the cold water on her skin, and use his callused hands to wash her breasts and her back, to scrub her clean. Her hands through his hair; she would feel him harden against her when she kissed him on the mouth. Her blistered fingers would run over that well-muscled back, those thighs, up those calves, while the light flared into color around them, the stained-glass windows catching the afternoon sun, and the smell would be of lawn mowers, leftover grave dirt clinging to shovels, and rakes still holding pieces of dried grass. Margo could see Andra, her face wet with rain, her thick, black hair plastered to her skin. Yes, Andra would have done all that.

Margo held the bottle of Jameson up to the light. “Here’s to you, Andra,” she said, upending the bottle of Jameson on the grave. Only a drop emerged.
“So, you want to come and meet Pete? He’ll like you, Margo Martinard.”

The birthday party. She’d forgotten about that. It didn’t need to be all the way Andra would have had it. It could be different.

Before she had time to think about it, she walked up to him and kissed him. She tasted the liquor on his tongue, felt his arms move around her, solid against her back. She let it last, the feeling of holding someone, being held. And he didn’t pull away until she let him go.

“Sure,” she said, already thinking about the suitcase with a clean dress and a plane ticket she could use some other time. She nestled the empty bottle on the grave among the flowers. Then she had another thought. She unclasped the bracelet from her wrist, wiped it off at the hem of her dress, and fastened it around the bottle’s neck.

They collected her things from the waiting limo, the driver starting the engine and moving along. She climbed into the cab of the beaten green truck and looked back. She could see the blanket of red roses and, just beyond, the hat on the bench, the little black pearl dangling from its crown, brim lifting in the breeze.


B.P. Greenbaum holds a B.A. in English from the University of Hartford, an M.A. in secondary education from St. Joseph College, and an M.F.A. from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast. Presently, she is the creative writing teacher at a public magnet arts high school in Willimantic, Connecticut. In addition to teaching fiction writing, flash fiction, poetry, and advanced script writing, she is also involved in local land conservation efforts. In 2011, she was awarded a Teaching Arts Fellowship from Surdna, now known as the National Arts Teachers Fellowship (NATF), to develop a memoir. Her poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction have been published in The Louisville Review, Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Alembic, Forge, Hog River Review, Inscape, Verdad, Pearl, Willow Review, Underwood Review, The Dos Passos Review, Prick of the Spindle, MacGuffin, Fiction Fix, Noctua Review and Penmen Review.

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