Till Next Time, Take Care of Yourselves and Each Other
by Donald Quist
I peer down into the casket at her bloated dry remains. Draped in snowy lace and rested over satin pillows, she looks unlike herself. I regret taking this final glimpse into the coffin before the procession. I had rather remember Thelma the way I most often did in my youth: the Old Lady haloed by cigarette smoke and leaning forward on the edge of a tattered loveseat, watching The Jerry Springer Show, her favorite.
She would nod occasionally in acknowledgement of something a guest on the show would say. She’d shake her head like a disapproving parent when fist fights started on stage or someone threw a piece of furniture. Thelma saw the set grow wider and the chairs become lighter as Richard Dominick and the show-runners tried to accommodate the brawls. Eventually, Steve Wilkos could not subdue the fervent guests by himself and the show needed to expand security. Thelma approved of these changes, for safety.
“A few weeks ago my 7th grade History teacher said this show is like the gladiator arena in Rome. She said it pacifies the masses and distracts us from our crumbling empire.”
“What? Boy, quiet. Jerry’s about to give his Final Thought.”
“My teacher says Jerry is exploiting these people and this show is bad for society.”
Thelma glared down at me sitting cross-legged on the floor by her feet. She belched a grey cloud of nicotine and said, “Springer is true life.”
During his closing statements on episode 51 in season 16, “Update: I Still Love You!” Jerry says, TV doesn’t make truth, nor can it change it.
The show would become more surreal in later seasons in an attempt to raise controversy and television ratings. Some of the revamps included an actor playing a drunken priest to officiate weddings, gelatin wresting, mud wrestling, champagne bubble baths, fight bells and round card girls, a steel catwalk above the stage leading to a firemen’s pole which Jerry and exotic dancers could use as an entrance, and green plastic Mardi Gras inspired necklaces called “Jerry Beads” that encourage guests and audience members to flash body parts.
But despite these embellishments, the men and women who came on the show looked and sounded, as the Old Lady suggested, very real. They didn’t possess physical features like those other daytime drama stars with clear skin and chiseled frames. The guests on Springer seemed familiar and common. Their stories resembled those I’d overhear at my granduncle’s house in Hartsville, South Carolina.
I spent most vacations from school sitting in my granduncle’s den, pretending to read R.L. Stine or Camus while listening to people pour-out their tales of woe to the Old Lady. I can only remember a few of her frequent visitors. Larry struggled with alcoholism and every week he’d arrive to confess his recent missteps and fall from grace. Beulah fretted over her lesbian daughter who had conflicts with lovers all over town. Carrie couldn’t stay faithful to her hen-pecked husband. Boo came by as regularly as she could—her addiction to crack cocaine caused her to vanish for months while she served jail time for petty thefts and prostitution.
Day after day, Mondays through Fridays, they came to sit and talk with Thelma in the kitchen or the front porch. The Old Lady would offer them a short cup of cheap vodka and she would listen, nodding occasionally in acknowledgment, breaking her silence only to ask a sporadic question for clarification. Once the person finished speaking and drained the last drop of spirits from their clear plastic cup, then Thelma would posit a final thought for them to consider as they went on their way; and sometimes I’d notice her visitors appeared a little less sad or angry or scared than they looked before.
* * *
Few of Thelma’s guests have come to help carry her casket to the hearse. Days before the funeral Larry came to my mother’s home weeping incoherently. I fixed him a drink, like the Old Lady would do. I patted him on the back and gave him some cash for a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor. I watched him stumble down the street knowing that once I lost sight of him sinking into the horizon he’d never resurface.
Perhaps Thelma’s cohorts feel too grief-stricken to come to her memorial service, or maybe they don’t feel comfortable in churches. Instead, the warm bodies shuffling from the pews belong to members of the congregation, somber church folks obligated to my granduncle—a valued member of their flock.
My granduncle sings with the men’s choir the fourth Sunday of every month. He served on the church treasury committee and with the United Methodist Men’s organization for decades. He joins Bible study on Wednesdays and adult Bible school Sundays before the 11am service. He uses his carpentry experience to repair things around the facility.
In contrast, his sister Thelma had never stepped inside this church, or any other, my entire life. But, she did have faith. Whenever I stayed at my granduncle’s house, the Old Lady made sure to get me ready for church on Sundays. On the occasions I didn’t want to go, she’d threaten to withhold dinner or television.
“But you never go. Why do I always have to go?”
“You should give your uncle company. Help me keep an eye on him, make sure he stays out of trouble.”
“Those aren’t real reasons! Why don’t you ever go?”
“God and I have an agreement.”
I’d pout and leave with my granduncle, and the Old Lady would turn on a televangelist. She’d dial the volume all the way up while she cooked and cleaned, so the waves of shouts of praise flooded the entire house, immersing her in worship. The next day would replace the cries for Jesus with cheers for “JERRY! JERRY! JERRY!”
At church, people often spoke to me about Thelma.
“I saw your grandmamma fighting with a cashier at the Piggly Wiggly.”
“I heard your grandma threatened to shoot somebody at the Wash Tub laundry mat the other day.”
“Your grandmother gave a city councilman the bird when he tried to cut her in line at the bank.”
Sometimes, I overheard members of the congregation express sympathy for my granduncle. They’d employ the same adjectives critics use to describe the Jerry Springer Show. They called Thelma crass and rude, and pitied my charitable granduncle for allowing her to live with him. They said she’d obviously never be welcomed by anyone else.
Many of the Old Lady’s reviewers have come today to offer their condolences. They approach me after the pastor’s sermon to offer a warm embrace and to whisper thoughts of encouragement into my ear. I recall many of the same voices years earlier condemning the woman I mourn.
As they line-up to hug my granduncle, I can see he grieves too. He usually smiles broadly, but today his face—creased and furrowed with concern—has adopted Thelma’s resting scowl. The differences between the siblings have always outnumbered their similarities. My granduncle didn’t have much interest in the things Thelma relished. He didn’t smoke and rarely drank. He didn’t watch daytime television. Although a disabled veteran, he tried to stay active and didn’t enjoy staying home during the day like Thelma. Most often I could find him doing something at church or exercising at the YMCA.
On Tuesdays my granduncle participated in Meals on Wheels, delivering food prepared by the kitchen staff at the local hospital to elderly shut-ins. He often brought me along and let me carry the plates from the car to the houses. I’d knock loudly at each home and wait for several seconds. Usually, the door would creak open. The stale air from inside—reeking of sour flesh, urine, peppermint and halitosis—would reach out with a pair of shaking paper hands to cradle the foam container.
I’d recollect these images and scents years later while walking into Thelma’s room in the intensive care unit at Carolina Pines where she died.
A few times the door didn’t open and I returned to my granduncle’s car sulking over the probability that the intended recipient of the meal now only existed in memory. My granduncle and I didn’t dare to consume the food left behind. I held these plates in my lap until we reached his house. Thelma would eat the meal or give it to one of her visitors.
* * *
One day, my granduncle and I returned to the house with a remaining Meals on Wheels plate to discover Thelma standing above a body sprawled onto the living room floor. I quickly sat the lunch down and we rushed over to the Old Lady’s side. At our feet, Carrie laid facedown, muttering into a pool of her own chunky beige vomit.
My granduncle shook his head and frowned at Thelma. The Old Lady and I watched him leave. We heard the door to the rear patio slam behind him. Thelma lit a cigarette and took a seat on the plastic covered sofa.
“She had a little too much to drink,” Thelma explained. “I want you to clean this up and drive Carrie home in my El Camino.”
“Just do it, boy. I can’t be bending down there and she’s too heavy for me to get off the ground.”
“I only have a learner’s permit.”
“It’s just across the lake. It’s a straight shot up Fifth Street, and you’ll have an adult in the car with you. Now, help me take care of this.”
Thelma stood and walked to the bathroom to fetch cleaning items, leaving me with Carrie’s large unresponsive carcass. I squatted and then rolled her onto her side. Thelma returned with a dry towel, a short garbage bin, a roll of paper towels and a damp washcloth. With the wet rag I removed most of the puke from Carrie’s face and chest. Her eyes fluttered awake and her mouth opened and closed like a fish pulled from water. She chewed her tongue for several seconds and then slurred, “Ssssorry.” I managed to assist her from the house to the passenger seat of Thelma’s El Camino. I propped Carrie up with her seat belt, lowered the passenger window and left her with an empty grocery bag in case she felt sick again. Then I went back inside to clean up the living room.
I returned to my granduncle’s house late that afternoon—I had to park in Carrie’s front yard and wait for her to sober up enough to climb the cinderblock steps into her trailer. When I walked into the house I found Thelma watching television on her loveseat, eating the Meals on Wheels lunch I had brought home to her earlier.
I approached her slowly.
Without taking her eyes off the TV she stabbed some cold green beans off the foam plate and shoved them into her mouth.
“You get Carrie home safe?”
I replied with a curt, yes. I squeezed my hands into fists.
I waited for a thank you. It didn’t come. I snatched the plate from Thelma’s hands, walked to the kitchen and dumped the food into the sink.
The Old Lady squinted at me curiously.
“That’s a waste, boy.”
I began to yell. I can’t remember everything I said but I know I called Thelma selfish. I called her a burden on my granduncle and I asked her why she couldn’t try to emulate his behavior. I repeated some of the things the people at church had said about her, what they said about the company she keeps and how unfair it was for Thelma to inconvenience my granduncle by bringing bad people into his home.
The Old Lady coughed and turned her head back towards the television screen.
“Careful, boy,” she sighed. “It’s just as easy to find the devil in church.”
That evening, I tried to avoid Thelma. My granduncle came home and I explained to him what had happened. He said he didn’t need a sixteen-year-old kid to speak for him. He demanded I apologize to his sister, but didn’t insist any further after I refused. I confined myself to my granduncle’s side of the house and skipped dinner.
I usually slept in the room next to Thelma’s, but to ensure I didn’t see her, I decided to spend the night on a chaise lounge by the glass doors to the rear patio.
My granduncle gave me a thin blanket and a pillow.
I fell asleep staring out into the backyard. The dark grass resembled deep water. I imagined the flash of lightening bugs as signal flares.
* * *
I woke in the dark to a chorus of singing cicadas, chirping crickets and a soft but urgent tapping on the glass behind me. I rolled over to see a solid shadow pressed against the transparent door. Because in those few seconds after waking the brain finds it difficult to distinguish dreams from reality, I felt no apprehension rising to my feet and moving closer to determine what the shadow wanted.
I unlocked the door and with the click of the sliding deadbolt the static shadow rushed into the house and tossed me backwards onto the chaise lounge. The shadow grabbed my shirt. Its claws scratched my chest. It ran it’s stinking talons across my face and spoke in trebly whispers. With foul breath it asked for help. It needed whatever I had to give. It dragged its nails down my belly.
I closed my eyes tight with fear.
My granduncle’s voice came. The claws vanished and I peaked through my eyelids to see him standing above, gripping the shadow’s wrists, pushing the specter out the door.
“Not tonight,” he said.
But the shadow persisted. It apologized, it asked for something, anything, he could provide. It would do whatever my granduncle liked, what it knew he liked, for whatever he could spare from his wallet.
The moving silhouette sounded familiar, but not until I heard my granduncle murmur, “Another night,” did I identify the shadow as one of Thelma’s frequent guests, Boo.
The door locked.
“You okay, Donald?”
I didn’t know. I had a few scratches but I sensed a deeper injury I couldn’t yet articulate.
He asked me if I wanted to finish sleeping in my own room, but I said no.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Okay,” he panted. “Okay then.”
My granduncle gently squeezed my shoulder and then retired to his bedroom.
His words repeated in my head: not tonight, another night. Not tonight? As in tomorrow, or the next day, as in other nights, other instances, regular occurrences?
Later I would learn to recognize my granduncle’s history of using desperate women for sex. I’d finally acknowledge he had over eight children with several different women. I’d admit my granduncle had caused others immeasurable pain and suffering, and confront his failure to show his sons and daughters the financial and emotional support he showed me, and I would eventually have to concede to myself that I didn’t know how to love him any less.
Trying to return to sleep on my granduncle’s chair, my temples thumped and flushed with blood. I could hear my heart implode as I choked on my own saliva. Hot tears stung the tiny scratches on my dry cheeks.
I started to regret the spiteful words I had said earlier to the Old Lady, recalling an episode of Springer titled, “Christmas with the Klan,” where Jerry says, I am struck by how easy so many of us call ourselves a particular religion… giving little thought to it other than, well that’s what my parents are and we celebrate certain holidays… In God’s eyes we are not defined merely by what we call ourselves… We are what we are, based on how we behave when no one is watching but God.
Springer’s sentiments echoed a maxim Thelma had repeated to me since I first learned to walk, “Boy, pay no attention to what a nigga says. Watch what they do.” People at the church said a lot of things and did the opposite when they believed others were not watching.
I had made a mistake believing that some had earned a holy right to cast aspersions onto others, wrong in supposing one could ascertain another person’s value through secondhand knowledge or brief glimpses into their lives. I can’t sort all those I encounter among the good and the bad. Considering how much I have yet to understand about myself, how can I assume to know everything about anyone else?
* * *
The coffin closes and my granduncle grabs the opposite end of the casket. With the help of two of the funeral directors we hoist Thelma’s body and begin the careful journey through the front doors of the church, down the sandy redbrick steps and sidewalk, to the white hearse waiting to carry her to the cemetery in Society Hill.
Exiting the church the bright summer sky blinds me. We slide Thelma’s casket into the cab of the vehicle and my eyes adjust. I think I see Boo standing at the far end of the parking lot in her stained dress and matted wig. I imagine she has come from the crack dealers on the corner of Sixth and Washington Street. Hindered by a sense of curiosity or respect for the dead, she has never appeared so still. She casts a brilliant glow as her sweating skin sparkles in the sun.
I’m reminded people have complexity and duality, not unlike an exploitive tabloid talk-show allowing individuals largely unrepresented in mainstream media to share their experience. I offer an inaudible prayer for Boo before heading towards the cars lining up for the funeral procession. I’ll try to keep an eye out for her whenever I’m in the neighborhood. I wish her the best and that she never goes overlooked or unheard for too long.
* * *
My family follows the hearse to the burial site. In the car, my mother, granduncle, Dorothy May, and I ride in silence. We travel down 151 and then north on Highway-15. The open pit of earth that will become Thelma’s grave rests in a large glade behind a decaying A.M.E. church. Thelma’s parents are buried there alongside my granduncle’s first wife.
Bordered by trees and dense brush, the only clear entrance onto the cemetery grounds features a slender gravel road barely wide enough for a car. The hearse squeezes through the path and the rest of the convoy parks beside the church. We get out and follow the tire tracks trenched into the dirt and rocks.
The thick foliage forms a tunnel around us and at the end shines the light from the clearing. A tearful Dorothy May strides up to me. She breaks her somber quiet to tell me she liked the eulogy I gave and that it made her feel closer to Thelma. At the memorial I spoke about the Old Lady’s proclivity for profanity and chain-smoking, her tendency to speak openly about bodily functions, and her violent temper whenever someone didn’t show her respect. I mentioned how some considered her a difficult woman. I also shared examples of her courage and compassion, her kindness and the responsibility she felt for others. I noticed Dorothy May and my mother in the front row smiling together through tears.
In the years preceding Thelma’s death, my mother retired and moved to Hartsville in order to care for the Old Lady. A few months following my mother’s move south, Thelma made a significant revelation. She confirmed that my mother had a secret sister.
My mother explained this to me on the phone, “Mama gave birth to another daughter, Dorothy May.”
“While her husband was fighting in Korea, mama slept with one of his friends and she got pregnant.”
“Like an episode of Springer,” I replied calmly.
“Yes, I guess. Lord, have mercy. She gave Dorothy May to a distant cousin to raise in Florida. Mama says she tried to get Dorothy May back after separating from my father but the cousin refused.”
“Are you okay, mom?”
“What do you mean?”
“This is a lot to learn. Are you upset?”
“At who, Mama? Mama’s daughter? Who can I be angry at? Who would you be angry at?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m just shocked. I’m tired. If I was younger I might be more emotional about this. Mama will never say sorry anyway. You know how she is.”
When Thelma got sick and her pneumonia grew serious, my mother called Dorothy May. I wish Dorothy May had reached her mother’s bedside in time. I wish she had the chance to say goodbye to the Old Lady. I like to envision Thelma pushing away the tubes flowing in and out of her body, raising her weak head from her starched hospital pillow to tell her daughters to take care of themselves and each other.
Standing beside the grave with my head bowed in prayer, I think of a line from Jerry Springer’s Final Thought in the episode, “Springer Sex Circus” featuring comic-hypnotist Denny More: Why cant there be levels of existence or communication beyond human comprehension or levels which some people have a better knack of reaching than others?
This notion comforts me as I turn away from Thelma’s resting place. Maybe she could exist again somewhere else. Maybe I might learn to speak to her in a different way.
I extend an elbow to my mother and she takes hold of me. I guide her up the incline of the short gravel road back to the parked cars. My granduncle and my new aunt follow closely to ensure no one slips or trips to the ground. The summer sun peaks through the canopy of leaves and slaps our backs like a warm friendly palm.
Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. He is author of the forthcoming nonfiction collection, Harbors, from Awst Press (fall 2016). His work has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, J Journal, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Cleaver, Knee-Jerk, The Adroit Journal, Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, Slag Glass City, Publishers Weekly and other print and online publications. He is co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast and serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find him online at iamdonaldquist.com. This is an excerpt from his nonfiction collection, Harbors, forthcoming from Awst Press (fall 2016).