Don’t Mistake Human Remains for Cocaine
Aunt Glenda gave me and Cricket $200 to buy an urn for the ashes, and we fled. After suffering our closest (and richest) relations’ disdain and neglect from a thousand miles away our whole childhood, suddenly having them inside our small, shabby southwest Florida home micromanaging our mom’s last arrangements was a lot. But they thought we were too young to figure it all out on our own. We were twenty-two (Irish twins, eleven months apart) and fairly fucked up, so they may have been right.
Cricket and I had barely spoken since I ran away to college. Cricket and I had barely spoken before I ran away to college. Cricket and I had had little to do with each other, in fact, since we were around six years old and still building pillow forts in the over-abundant living room in the house that it turned out we couldn’t afford so we’d moved away after our mom (who was technically our grandmother) divorced her alcoholic second husband and buried her two real daughters. Having little left to give, our mom had split herself in two and given each of us half: I got her respect, but Cricket got her love.
So the two of us, likewise, split the universe in two and agreed to keep to our side. I drowned my adolescence in a pile of books; Cricket went with the more traditional sex and drugs. Cricket dropped out of high school; I escaped to college. But we were both burnt out by our aunt and uncle’s cloyingly perfect manners and good-breeding that day, so we were doing fine with each other for once.
We took the $200 and drove down to Fancy Street by the beach to find a container they would deem acceptable to inter with our mother’s ashes in the venerable family plot in Virginia. The day was moist and desolate. Hurricane Wilma had stopped by that weekend, downing nearly all the power and telephone lines, and the streets were strewn with flotsam. One whole tree had been plucked from the ground and lay on its side, its roots flipping off the sky.
We parked our mom’s indecorous yellow Toyota Matrix and wove our way into and out of stuffy boutiques, picking up hollow blown-glass artisanal pieces, fine, porcelain basins, and deceptively simple boxes imported all the way from Japan; in each, I tried to picture the woman who’d manhandled every moment of our childhoods, mostly from the comfort of her depression-bed, shutting up long enough to be called “at rest.” The well-coifed sales ladies looked at us askance, as well they should—we were obviously up to the worst kind of mischief—but they asked if they could help us, anyway. This sent us into peals of laughter. Could they help us? Could anyone help us? Were we even worth helping? Not according to most of our relations. What kind of help would have helped us, anyway?
Having no answers to these and other questions, we left before the cops could be called.
Cases, canisters, vessels, casks, repositories, barrels, bowls, tankards, pitchers, bins, and drums. We tried them all, but nothing was vibrant enough, irreverent enough, spiteful or woeful enough. We’d been at it for hours when our fractured nerves and our natural distrust for each other resurfaced. There were no contenders. We were at the end of Fancy Street, and it was clear that none of those ostentatious ladies believed our white-trash asses could pay for what they were selling.
We ended up by the pier where our mom used to bring us to play as kids, having escaped the respectable relations herself when she was much younger and Florida was still a string of quirky fishing villages. There was a kitschy tourist shack. We went in and immediately spotted a hideous pink-plastic flamingo vase for ten bucks. We bought it without conferring. Pocketed the rest of the money.
We brought the pink-plastic flamingo vase back to our aunt who was comme il faut in this and all things. Completely straight-faced, we handed it to her, knowing this would have made Mommy cackle. Watching Aunt Glenda’s perfectly manicured fingers shrink back, we pretended we were the idiots she thought we were.
“Perfect,” she said nobly.
In lieu of a funeral—our mom had been a rabid atheist—we had a gathering in the home. Even if the traditional news outlets had been functioning full-force, it would have been small. She spent her last decade razing bridges. One of her former friends, who we used to spend Christmas with, told us straight off she was there only to support me and Cricket. Our mom’s favorite cousin, in contrast, did not come because we were “two ungrateful bitches.” Neither our mom’s students nor the people she’d taught with for nearly forty years showed up. But the brassy old biddies with bad teeth and backs she’d slung fabric with at Jo-Ann’s when her retirement money wasn’t enough came out en masse toward the end of the night.
Aunt Glenda, bless her well-bred heart, greeted them with all the grace a Southern Lady could muster. I sat on the piano bench in the living room and tried to make small talk with everyone. It was Halloween. My one-year anniversary, exactly, with my girlfriend back at college. My brain kept catching on this fact. (When I asked her to come with me, she informed me the request was improper.)
Uncle Aaron said something disparaging about Provincetown.
“I love P-town,” I said, having gone there recently and discovered that women walked hand in hand all over town without anyone batting an eye.
“I bet you do,” he said, vehemently. And so my evening went.
Cricket got wasted instead.
Cricket is 4’11 and elfin—fair hair, green eyes, pointy ears, with a wyrd-witchy style. Besides our age for one month every year, and our birthright of intergenerational trauma, the only thing we share is our chest size. Though I’d never admitted this, in high school I had admired Cricket’s ability to try just enough of every drug to experience it and be liked, but never enough to get truly messed up. It was a sort of self-possession I never had. But this was not one of those nights. While Cricket was in the living room getting drunker and drunker, judgment oozed from our aunt and uncle. So Cricket sad “fuck it,” took several bottles, and went out to what used to be a garage but had more recently been our drug-dealer cousin’s room before he ostensibly killed himself in a shoot out with the police-who-never-fired-a-shot.
Cricket was staggering around beyond blackout drunk, so I called Little Crystal, one of Cricket’s best friends, to come over for support. She suggested Cricket try on the Pez dispenser costume that Cricket had put so much work into, and now wasn’t going to get to wear to any Halloween parties, after all. Cricket had collected Pez dispensers (and other small things) for years and had really done a great job with the Cricket-sized Big Bird Pez dispenser.
It fit perfectly.
Unfortunately, it had no arm holes.
And Cricket was hammered.
And the floor was concrete.
Cricket crashed down head-first. And then refused to go to the hospital. Cricket could barely speak through the alcohol and concussion but was adamant on that point. NO HOSPITAL. In hindsight, I suspect it was a fear about health insurance now that our mom had died. Even though Aunt Glenda and Uncle Aaron probably would have covered any hospital bill from that night, that would, obviously, have come with its own baggage.
But over the past four years, I had lost my mom, my cousin, the alcoholic second-husband, one of my best friends from high school, and even my childhood cat, who was eaten by the next door neighbor’s bull mastiff. Now Cricket, the last person I had left, was lying on the ground with a head-knot growing bigger than a grapefruit.
I flipped out and called an ambulance.
The paramedics came and examined Cricket. They told us that there was about a 50% chance of internal bleeding and long-term brain damage and a 50% chance everything would be fine. They also pointed out that Cricket’s stomach should probably be pumped. But they said they couldn’t legally force someone to go to the hospital, even if it would save their life.
Apparently, it takes more than alcohol poisoning and a concussion to kill a Watts.
Cricket hasn’t died yet.
Aunt Glenda and Uncle Aaron packed up and left—thank God—the next day. They took the flamingo and the bag of ashes, sans the little bit sealed up in a small wooden box that Cricket kept. (Though the flamingo had mysteriously disappeared a year later when they interred her in a muted marble urn.) I had taken the month off school to help pack up our mom’s things and deal with the details. But we didn’t do any of that. Cricket moved into our mom’s bedroom and then just went to sleep, like our mom had when her daughters died.
Week after week.
It had never actually been my house. They’d moved there after I went off to college to try to get our cousin away from his drug contacts, not that it worked. There wasn’t even a single drawing or stuffed animal of mine from grade school, let alone a bedroom—I slept in the fabric closet. I tried to get Cricket to do things that I thought would be helpful in the long-run, while I was there to be helpful. Cricket did not want to. Any more than our mom had wanted to. My whole life at home had been one interminable cycle of trying to make people do things they didn’t want to do so that I could survive and be happy.
I went back to Wellesley. That semester was a mess. I took an incomplete in all my classes at my dean’s suggestion. My quantum mechanics professor demanded that I still come to lectures, so I told him I never got anything from his lectures and walked out. My girlfriend informed me that it had been very hard on her to have me gone for so long. As though I had timed my mother’s unexpected death of a cancer she’d been diagnosed with three weeks before she died in order to inconvenience my girlfriend.
And Cricket, who had never lived alone and unsupported, was left to figure it all out. A friend of a friend knew a friend who needed a place—a young guy around twenty—so he moved in to help cover the bills. A week later, Cricket went on a road trip. Maybe the air of depression lingered in the house when we were all gone. Maybe the guy chose that house because he was depressed.
Or maybe it was haunted.
Not long before our mom died, she reconnected with a man she’d had a crush on when they were kids. Nearly sixty years later, he was coming to visit to see if they might kindle something. Before he arrived, Mommy made Cricket take the decal of the squirrel with gigantic balls off the toilet seat. She said, “We wouldn’t want him to get the right impression of us.”
So Mommy would have found what happened next hilarious. And Cricket and I, well, we didn’t not. It wasn’t that the new roommate killed himself—that part, of course, was tragic. Cricket found him in the living room. But beside him, Cricket found the box of Mommy’s ashes pried open. A little was dribbled out on the floor beside him. Cricket realized he must have thought Mommy was cocaine. And tried to snort her.
Cricket and I sorted ourselves out, more or less, as the years went by. I earned three degrees, was baptized into the Episcopal church, and now live in California where I tutor rich kids, thereby assuring that those who have keep on having. Cricket moved to Atlanta and waited tables for a decade before moving to Portland and establishing a house-cleaning business that they work at when they aren’t rioting for political causes. Years later doctors found some neurological issues that may have been from that night or may have come from the beating Cricket took during more than a decade playing roller derby.
Cricket is the only person from my old life still alive. This is both a blessing and a curse. Otherwise, I could pretend that life never happened. Could pretend I have always been what the people here see when they look at me: a well-educated, middle-class writer and teacher, church leader, cat mother, singer, and friend. With perhaps a few more stories than average.
But Cricket calls and sounds like giving up, so I drop everything, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of wild fire season, and drive up to Oregon, even now. And try to get them to do things that would be helpful, while they lie in bed and refuse.
Cricket kept our mom’s Toyota Matrix for years as it decayed. Someone busted in the passenger’s side door. The last time I saw it, there was no window, just a rainbow-colored fleece blanket duct-taped over where a window should have been. Despite that, someone bothered to “break in.”
The only thing they stole?
That box of Mommy’s ashes.