We’re pleased to present an excerpt from You’ll Be Fine, the new novel from writer Jen Michalski. It follows a writer who returns to her hometown following the death of her mother, where she’s reunited with a host of familiar faces from her past. Add a long-buried family secret into the mix and you have the makings of a compelling, lived-in work of fiction.
The funeral home is clean but outdated. Or maybe it isn’t outdated, just something else. Everything is white or ivory: the walls, the chair rails that connect to faux Grecian columns flanking corners, the fireplace in the lobby. The only splash of color rests in the framed prints of vaguely timeless pastoral themes that envisioned Heaven as a Thomas Kinkade painting.
“Gary Coons.” The man who meets them at the door holds out his hand. He looks like the kind of man who was born to manage a funeral home. “I’m so sorry to hear about your mother, Adeline.”
“Thanks,” Alex answers. “I don’t know if my brother told you, but my mother wanted to be cremated.”
“Of course.” He nods, hands clasped in front of his crotch. “We can help you with that.”
“Can we see her?” Owen pipes up. He’s wearing a Dr. Who T-shirt and cargo shorts. Alex wishes she had noticed before and had asked him to put something nicer on before they left.
Gary Coons nods again and leads them to a viewing parlor. Toward the front of the room, covered only by a white sheet, lies what is left of Adeline Maas.
“When you’re ready, I’ll be just down the hall—third room on the left.” Gary Coons closes the door behind them.
Alex takes one step, then another, as Owen remains by the door. Suddenly she isn’t in a rush. Maybe if she doesn’t see her mother there, dead, her mother could still be at home, or at the art supply store, or at the junior axillary board cafeteria at the hospital, which she insisted had the best coffee in town and spent mornings sometimes chatting up relatives visiting loved ones and doctors she hoped were single (or at least open to having a mistress).
But she’s here, in front of her. Alex can see the cow lick on her mother’s crown she’d insisted her entire life was just bedhead. It hovers above the table a little, and Alex is mad for a second Gary Cooks or whatever his name is didn’t even give her a pillow, letting her head rest on the hard steel instead. Although, she guesses, in his defense, her mother doesn’t need it now.
She closes her eyes and smooths her mother’s hair, feeling the cool, solidness of her head. She waits for a moment for her mother to roll her eyes and snort. But she doesn’t. She looks almost peaceful. Almost loveable.
“Mom,” Alex murmurs under her breath. Her mother died alone, in her sleep, not ravaged by cancer, or mangled in a car accident, blown up by a terrorist, or drowned at sea. But she was still her mother, and she shouldn’t have died at all. Not, at least, until she had a chance to say goodbye. Or before you apologized to me, she thinks in the next breath. The more years that went by, though, the more times Alex picked up the phone and listened to her mother’s chatter, her plans for mother-daughter trips to South Beach, or San Francisco, the more her mother seemed to feel absolved, forgiven. Brazen.
She shouldn’t be feeling this way now. But what should she be feeling? Unfortunately, she’s learned there’s no binary emotional scale for important life events. You can feel devastated and relieved at the same time. Or both sad and angry. Or shocked but not surprised. Or, as Alex does right now, all these things at once.
She picks up her mother’s hand and squeezes it, over and over. It feels unnatural, stiff and heavy, like hardened clay. Not like a person at all. Her mother is really dead; Alex is really alone. Her mother had not been her best friend, but she knew Alex best, which is its own comfort, she guesses. Someone who always knows who you are and will tell you, whether you want to hear it or not. If that person was gone, who will be there to show you the ugly truths of yourself?
“What are your options on taxidermy?” Owen asks Gary Coons when they’re seated in his office.
“Absolutely not.” Alex waves Owen off, shoving a catalog across the table toward him. “I’m fine with any of the urns on page 5—pick one.”
“But we got Penny stuffed,” he argues, shoving the urn catalog back across the table toward her. “I think Mom would like it.”
Alex ignores him, turning to smile at Gary Coons. She points to a sterling silver urn in the catalog with two doves flying eternally in a circle around the body of the urn. Just like her and Owen.
“We’ll take two of these,” she says. She doesn’t know what she’ll do with her own urn, exactly, but she doesn’t want to visit a spot in the ground and she certainly doesn’t want to encounter her mother’s freeze-dried corpse next to their old cat, Penny, on the floor by the rocker in the living room if she comes back to visit Owen.
Still, when they leave the funeral home, Alex feels like they’re making a mistake, although she’s not sure what it is. Maybe she should have spent more time with her mother’s body. After all, she’ll never see it again. Maybe Owen’s taxidermy idea isn’t so kooky after all.
“Where are you going?” she asks when she notices him heading away from the house.
“I always get Taco Bell on Thursdays,” he answers, taking a hard left into the drive-thru. He leans his head out the window to get a better look at the menu.
“Seriously, you’re hungry right now?”
“I’m always hungry—do you not know me?” He arches an eyebrow. “What do you want?”
“Just a Diet Coke.” If she eats anything, she might throw up. She roots in her purse for the bottle of the valium she’d snatched off her mother’s bedside table before they left. A few years back, Alex had taken some maximum-strength ibuprofen from the medicine cabinet when she’d been home visiting for the weekend. Although the fuel of her mother’s life had been disorganization, apparently, she knew down to the pill what she had in the house. The next day, when she went to take more, the cabinet was bare.
“Don’t even try to look for them,” her mother practically challenged her. “You’ll never find them. You have a job; buy your own damn pills.”
But when she’d come home the last time, when her mother was sidelined with what they thought was a back sprain, every bottle of pain medication in the house had migrated into one tight bunch on her bedtable. Some were even prescription meds, albeit harmless ones—valium, klonopin.
“Owen.” She’s studying the bottle as they wait at the drive-thru. She hadn’t read the label before she grabbed it, recognizing the shape of the pills through the amber cylinder instead. “This prescription is made out to you—I didn’t know you were taking valium.”
“My doctor prescribed it once for anxiety, but I never took it.” He turns away from her and leans out the window. “Two chicken gorditas, one soft taco, one bean burrito⎯are you sure you don’t want anything?”
“Diet Coke,” she repeats, gripping the prescription bottle tighter. A familiar sinking feeling settles into her stomach. “Did you give these to Mom?”
“Did you get all that?” Owen repeats to the order box.
“You got this valium for anxiety?” she asks when he’s back in the car.
“Yeah.” He shrugs. “I have trouble sleeping. Mom probably thought they were hers. She had some of her own too—legally.”
He emphasizes the last word. When he turns and reaches for the bags from the drive-thru attendant, she taps one out and pops it in her mouth. She’s not a prescription abuser, like her mother, so it’s okay. Allowed even, under the circumstances. It dissolves, chalky and bitter on her tongue.
Owen drops the two bags, greasy and warm, in her lap, onto the folders from the funeral home.
“Jeez, Owen—careful.” She pulls out the folders from under the bags and tucks them between her seat and the door. She supposes he could have gotten a prescription for insomnia. Hell, her doctor had written Alex a script after she’d told her about Kate.
“Oh, I got you a soft taco,” he says, almost in apology.
“Thanks, I guess.” She pats one of the bags like he’d given her a puppy. At the smell of the beef and cheddar, her stomach begins to gurgle in agitation.
“Remember the time when Mom drove through the Popeye’s drive-thru and forgot the food?” Owen laughs as he puts the car in first.
“Oh my God, yes.” Alex laughs too. “And she tried to back up to the window and make everyone else behind us back up, too? And her profanity, my God.”
“I’d never heard the words ‘fascist motherfucker’ before that.”
“So are you going to move out now?” she asks after a minute. “How many years has it been since you got your PhD?”
Alex figures Owen had an inkling of what was going on with their mother and Lewis, the insurance fraud stuff (and certainly the non-insurance fraud stuff that happened between Alex and Lewis). But the whole fraud thing had blown up the year before he’d graduated from college. She could understand him coming back and staying a little while, to make sure their mom was on the up and up (because Alex certainly wasn’t going to). But not 10 years or whatever it’s been.
“I think I want to sell,” he answers. “Unless you and Kate want it?”
“Really?” A dull burn flares in her chest at the mention of Kate. “I mean, where would you go?”
As Owen slows down for a traffic light, Alex reaches into her shoulder bag and pulls out a small envelope. In it is a folded notecard the color of champagne, with Kate’s monogram, KSL, engraved in rose gold. One weekend four months ago Alex went to visit her friend Lia in Boston. When she got home, everything of Kate’s was gone from Alex’s apartment, and the envelope had rested on the table: Alex, I know this will probably come as a shock (maybe not), and I’m sorry. But I think we’re at different places in our lives, and there’s so much you need to do to open yourself up to vulnerability. I also don’t want to be in a relationship in which I‘m a third wheel to your past. Although I think you’re wonderful and am grateful for the time we spent together, I know in my heart this is for the best. Love, Kate
How is it the woman she’d been with for four whole years, with whom she hoped she’d spend the rest of her life, chose to break up with her via her stationary? She shoves the card back into her purse, ashamed she’s kept it but unable to get rid of it either. She reads it at random times, as if she’s Nancy Drew trying to decipher a code: The Hidden Message in the Haughty Breakup Notecard.
How had Alex been a different place in her life than Kate? She wanted to be successful at work; she wanted love. She possibly wanted to have children. And she was passable, she thought, as a successful, cultured person. Even though she came from a small town, she learned to love sushi and bibimbap bowls and espresso. She’d watched Fellini and Bergman movies and spent her summer vacation with Kate’s extended family in their compound in Nantucket. She knew the difference between the Bordeaux and the Pinot and the Chardonnay glasses and had come to believe over time that the differences in those glasses were necessary.
Of course, as with anything involving her emotions, Alex managed to screw it all up somehow. The only way you know what you’re feeling is if you write it down—and even then, you’d edit the hell out of it, Kate had accused her once. Kate, Upper East side-born, Vassar-grade, who appeared on Sunday morning network shows as a political commentator and repeated talking points she didn’t even believe in. Who likened her job to selling Tabasco sauce to people who lived in hell—had accused Alex of being out of touch with her feelings.
“Do you think I’m out of touch with my feelings?” she asks Owen as the valium begins to turn the back of her head into wax.
“Your default setting is like, indignation,” he answers as the light turns green. “If that’s a feeling.”
“I would like to be magnanimous,” she explains, ignoring him. “When I’m here.”
“Did Kate put you up to it?”
“Kate and I broke up.” She grips the folder of her mother’s things tightly.
“Oh.” He pauses for a second. “You never told me that. I just thought she didn’t come because she was busy or something. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she answers. Maybe it is okay. She doesn’t have to pretend anymore to be someone she isn’t. But the more time she spends single, the more she’s worried she’ll become way too comfortable being herself.
“Wait⎯stop!” Alex cries so loud Owen slams on the brakes in the middle of the street.
“What?” He looks around, breathing hard, a dab of sweat near his ear. “Did I hit something?”
“There.” Alex points at a building about thirty feet ahead on the left⎯the administrative offices of The Shore Times, the local newspaper. “I need to do something for the magazine article I’m writing. It’ll only take a minute, I swear.”