Art: Little Women
Mrs. Petruny was fading, but not so fast that she didn’t have the sauciness to ask her three daughters to write her eulogy jointly, and before she died, so she could give it the final once-over. The daughters said of course, even though they knew the job would be impossible, since Anna talked too much, Gail acted like Ms. Witty, and Reeny was over-sensitive. Mrs. Petruny, who lay in her portable bed with the metal rails and the lockable wheels, arched her neck toward her kitchen. She’d asked to die at home, without any exhalations of hospital bleach or those rude machines that beeped, so Anna had rented the bed, Gail had made arrangements with Hospice, and Reeny had sat by her side with a box of Kleenex.
“Anna and I will be okay,” Gail said. “But I’m worried about Reeny. She can’t handle a eulogy.” It was a scalding August afternoon in Reno, and she wore red shorts and a gauzy blouse. She drank from a water bottle with a thick plastic straw, and after every sip, the bottle seethed.
“I can too!” Reeny said. She was the youngest of the three sisters, unmarried, and lived a few steps away in her garage apartment, with Mrs. Petruny’s call button by her single bed. She pulled the dark blue cardigan Mom had knitted her tighter around her chest.
“Oh, come on,” Gail said. “Everybody knows you pickle your memories in a murky brine.”
“You have your memories,” Reeny said. “I have mine.”
“Girls, please!” Mrs. Petruny said, moistening her lips with a taupe tongue. “This isn’t just about me. It’s about you.” She pulled her fleece beanie tighter over her head, since the Hospice people kept the house at sixty-eight degrees. “If you don’t mind, I’d like the eulogy completed by next Sunday, while I’m still sound of mind.” She smiled at Anna. “You’re the fourth grade teacher. Why don’t you take charge?”
“All right,” Anna said, happy to be the project leader. She was happy about her new ice bandanna as well, which kept her so cool in the terrible heat. Out the living room window, the mountains smoked.
Reeny took a breath and fought back her tears. “Oh, mother! Why do we have to do this?”
Mrs. Petruny patted Reeny’s wrist. “I don’t know how to explain it, except to say that I feel as if I’m nesting again, the way I did before you were born.” She closed her eyes with immense relief, which was how she’d been closing her eyes for the past week. “Before a woman gives birth, she wants everything in order. I feel the same way now.”
“Mother!” Reeny started to cry and pulled the cardigan tighter around her chest.
“Didn’t you nest with Anna and me?” Gail said.
Mrs. Petruny opened her eyes slowly and adjusted her fleece beanie. “I nested with all of you, but it was more complicated when Reeny was born. I’d lost my job, I didn’t know anybody in Reno, and that made it…” She stopped and patted Reeny’s wrist again. “Let’s not talk about that.”
“Is that when Dad started to throw things?” Reeny said.
“See what I mean?” Gail said, taking another sip from her water bottle. “Reeny doesn’t know what goes in a eulogy.”
“I do too!” Reeny said.
Anna walked to the bottom of the portable bed, unfolded the blanket, and laid it across Mrs. Petruny’s legs and feet. “I was worried when you first made the request, but now I understand.”
Mrs. Petruny nodded. “I knew you would.”
“What kind of twigs do you want in your nest?” Gail said.
Mrs. Petruny laughed. Reeny had another leakage of tears.
“Go now,” their mother said. “It may take you more than one session, so you should get to work.”
The sisters walked out the side door and across the driveway, which was hot enough to fry an egg on. Going up the stairs to Reeny’s garage apartment, Reeny poked Gail in the kidney with her inhaler. “How could you joke at a time like this?”
“People prepare for loss in different ways,” Anna said, partly in defense of Gail and partly to help Reeny toughen up, since she worried, along with Mrs. Petruny, about Reeny. Her little sister loved their mother so much! Three times in the past month, Reeny had said that Mom was the keystone in her arch, and when she was gone, the arch would collapse and everyone in her world would fall away, which made Anna say that Reeny should think more positively and Gail say that Reeny should get a boyfriend or, at least, a best friend.
“Mom’s my best friend,” Reeny always said.
“Reeny,” Anna said, “what if everyone in the U.S. Army started crying when their best friend died?”
“This is not the Army,” Reeny said.
Reeny’s place wasn’t big, just two stark rooms with a studio kitchen, which she kept at eighty-two because she didn’t believe in air-conditioning and had trouble going from cold to hot and back to cold again. She wanted to meet there in case Mom needed help finding an old photo album or ancient letter, since Hospice preferred not to do searches. Also, if they went to Anna’s house, Reeny didn’t want to be seen in tears in front of Anna’s children and every time she cried in front of Gail and her boyfriend, Jared gave her a sexual hug, which she found mortifying, since it was hard enough dealing with Mom’s death without having Jared add sex on top of it. My goodness! First death and now sex! What would be next?
“That was not a sexual hug,” Gail said. “You’d know it if Jared gave you a sexual hug.”
But after a half hour, the three daughters got into an argument about what went into a eulogy, how long it should be, and who it was for, so they tramped back downstairs, walked across the blazing concrete driveway, and entered the house. In the distance, the mountains roasted. The Hospice nurse was giving Mrs. Petruny a sip of water when they came in the living room.
“Finished already?” Mrs. Petruny said, raising her eyebrows. “Am I so boring you had nothing to say?”
“Of course not!” Reeny said.
The nurse excused herself and went into the kitchen.
“We had a few questions,” Anna said, standing by the bed. “Not to be difficult, but do you want the eulogy to have a theme?”
“I meant to mention that.” Mrs. Petruny moistened her lips. “Yes, I want it to be about transitions.”
“What about transitions?” Reeny said.
“Could you talk about all the transitions we went through, since it was just the four of us, and look how hard it was, but we did it, didn’t we? We managed.” Mrs. Petruny pulled her blanket up closer to her chin. “Also, could you talk about the way in which a person handles transitions can predict her future happiness?” When she said that, she looked straight at Anna and Gail, as if to say: Girls, do I need to spell it out any more?
“Could you give us an example?” Gail said.
“Like a loss?” Anna said. “That kind of transition?”
Mrs. Petruny ran her tongue around her lips and nodded at Anna. “I don’t want to write the eulogy for you, but do you remember when we moved from San Jose to Reno? It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but somehow, it felt that way, since you girls had to adjust to new schools and make new friends. And poor Reeny! She was only six, had lost her best friend, and had to…” She smiled weakly at Reeny. “Isn’t that what transitions are, brave steps into new territory?”
“What about the divorce?” Reeny said. “Wasn’t that a difficult transition for you?”
“Reeny, that’s not eulogy material,” Anna said. She patted Mrs. Petruny’s wrist. “What else?”
“And remember how hard it was to find our first apartment in Reno?” Mrs. Petruny said.
“Was that because we didn’t have enough money for the deposit?” Reeny said. “Was that when we almost became homeless!”
“Reeny!” Gail said. “That’s not eulogy material either. Don’t you know what a eulogy is?”
“Want to try my bandanna?” Anna said to Reeny, starting to unknot the cold scarf around her neck. “Your face looks hot.”
“How about one more example?” Gail said. “Just to make sure we’re on the right track.”
“Well…” Mrs. Petruny said, staring at the ceiling. “When you joined the National Guard and were almost shipped off to Iraq, that was a difficult transition for me. I watched the news every day, prayed that your regiment wouldn’t get deployed, and was so worried I might lose you.”
“I remember that,” Reeny said. “You were so happy the Guard took Gail, after her arrest and all.”
“Reeny!” Gail said. “What the hell!”
“Girls! Please!” Mrs. Petruny looked suddenly tired, and worried, and she struggled to keep her eyes open.
“Maybe Gail and I should write the eulogy,” Anna said. “I don’t think Reeny has the eulogy type of mind.”
“Oh no!” Mrs. Petruny said. “I want the three of you to do it. That’s very important to me!”
They didn’t meet for a week, since Anna had Parents’ Night, Gail had a sales conference in Sacramento, and the dog down the street bit Anna’s daughter on the nose, which was a serious thing. When they finally got together in Reeny’s apartment on the day before their deadline, Anna suggested that they compose the eulogy in the form of an expanded five-paragraph essay, which is what she taught her fourth graders. She sat down in one of Reeny’s folding chairs, which were in a circle in the living room. “Reeny,” she said, trying to get comfortable in the stiff metal chair. “Why don’t you have more seating in your place?”
“She’s got the same three chairs she’s had since she moved in,” Gail said.
“They have a sale going on at Ikea,” Anna said. “How about I buy you a couple of chairs?”
“Why do I need chairs?” Reeny said.
“For the other people in your life,” Gail said, taking a suck on her water bottle and sitting down. “Why’s it so hot in here?”
“What other people?” Reeny said.
“Here’s the structure of a five-paragraph essay, which we’re going to expand,” Anna said. “In the first paragraph, you tell me what you’re going to say, then you say it in the three middle paragraphs, and then, in the last paragraph, you tell me what you’ve said.”
“That’s dull,” Gail said.
Anna moved around in her chair. “Let’s start with food.”
Before Reeny could answer, Anna said she remembered how Mom cooked the most wonderful dinners, like beef & bacon meatloaf, fried chicken-a-la-king, and Spanish rice with raisins and peanuts, and she went on at considerable length about how Mom knew just which spices to use for each dish, which caused Gail to remember how Mom used cinnamon and nutmeg on all her desserts, from apple crisp to pineapple upside down cake.
“What about you?” Anna said to Reeny. “What’s your food memory?”
Reeny said she remembered how Mom used to line up her pill bottles at breakfast and take her first pill on an empty stomach, her second pill with her oatmeal, and her third and fourth pills, which she had to take because of the headaches she got after Mr. Petruny hit her, with her tea.
“That’s it, Reeny!” Gail said. “Anna and I are writing the eulogy. You’re done.”
“No!” Reeny said. “Mom said the three of us had to write it.”
“Then stop with the inappropriate memories!”
“Jesus Christ!” Gail said, taking a slug from her water bottle, which seethed. “Did we grow up in the same family or what?”
“Please!” Anna said to Gail. “We promised Mom we’d finish by tomorrow.”
So they had a time-out while Gail went to the bathroom, Anna checked her texts, and Reeny made herself a cup of Tension Tamer herbal tea. When they began again, Anna said her best memory of Mom was how she always put the girls before herself and never missed any of their basketball games, debate meets, or music events, even when she was working two jobs. Gail’s best memory: How Mom always saw the bright side of things, like when Gail had a boyfriend in Tahoe and they made many trips back and forth on I-80. They played lots of car games, such as Twenty Questions, which was Gail’s favorite.
“Why didn’t you ask Mom to guess about Dad?” Reeny said.
“Reeny!” Gail said. “That’s not a eulogy topic! My God! Aren’t you listening to us?”
“Your face is so red,” Anna said to Reeny. “Here, you’ve got to try my ice bandanna. It cools the nape of your neck nicely.” She started to untie the wet scarf but Reeny waved her off.
Reeny leaned against her kitchen counter, which had none of the things other people’s counters had, like a toaster, a wooden spoon jar, or a breadbox. She said one of her best memories of Mom wasn’t really a memory but a search, since Reeny enrolled at the University of Nevada Redfield campus, which was where Mr. Petruny worked, even though he’d had nothing to do with the family for years. Reeny said she wanted to learn why her father had hit her mother, and after she found out, she was going to hit him. So she and Mom spent all of August shopping for clothes and school supplies, put the UNR decal in the back window of the Honda, and even went to Las Vegas to meet Reeny’s roommate.
August 30th came and Mom and Reeny drove to the Redfield campus and moved her stuff into the dormitory. Then they went to the health office to fill out forms. Mom asked to speak with a counselor, which upset Reeny but Mom said it was for her, not Reeny, and then Mom came out after half an hour with red eyes but looking calmer, said goodbye in a sad voice, and drove home.
“Then what?” Anna said. She’d crossed her legs man-style, hoping it would make the chair more comfortable.
“I lasted three days.”
“What happened?” Anna said. “I never understood what happened.”
“That’s enough college talk,” Reeny said.
Gail jumped up from her chair. “Wait a minute! You can’t do that. You have to tell us what happened with you and dad.”
“You said stop with the inappropriate memories,” Reeny said.
“I didn’t mean that!” Gail said. “What the hell happened?”
“Off the record, Reeny,” Anna said. “It won’t be part of the eulogy.”
“Too late,” Reeny said.
Gail started shouting at Reeny, which made Anna suggest another time-out, which made Gail ask Reeny where she was going to live after Mom died, which made Reeny reach for her inhaler.
The next day, they had a compulsory meeting in Reeny’s apartment to assemble the eulogy and practice it. But as they were sitting in the folding chairs, the Hospice nurse called and said Mrs. Petruny had taken a turn for the worse, had been asking for Reeny, and did she want to come over?
“We’ll all come over,” Anna said.
They went down the stairs from the barren apartment, walked across the driveway, which felt like a burning pizza stone, and headed for the front door. In the distance, the mountains cooked. Mrs. Petruny lay in her bed, with one railing up and one down, and looked feverish. Her room was much cooler than Reeny’s apartment, and she was wearing her flannel nightgown and fleece beanie. In the floor vents beneath them, the AC panted. “Did you finish?” she said to her daughters.
“Yes,” Anna said. “I think you’ll approve.”
“It’s got a little humor,” Gail said. “You’ll appreciate that.”
Mrs. Petruny smiled weakly. “Reeny, dear,” she said. “Could you stand by the bed here, hold onto the railing, and read it to me?”
“Anna wrote most of it,” Reeny said. Her face was red and she was perspiring from the heat in her apartment. “Don’t you want her to read it?”
Mrs. Petruny smiled at Anna. “Do you mind?”
Anna was wearing a new ice bandanna, a red one, and she touched it lightly. “Of course not,” she said.
“I don’t know if I can read it,” Reeny said, starting to cry. “It’s your eulogy, Momma!”
“Momma?” Gail said, rolling her eyes and looking at the ceiling.
“Stop it, Gail!” Anna said.
“Now, now,” Mrs. Petruny said to Reeny. “You can do it.” She turned and nodded at the two older daughters. “Quiet, please.”
So Reeny took hold of the railing, plucked up her courage, and read the eulogy while Mrs. Petruny lay in bed and smiled like someone who’d completed an exhausting run and was looking forward to a long rest, which made Gail nod with relief and Anna smile, since composing a eulogy for a person who was still alive was no easy task, especially with Reeny and her inappropriate memories. Reeny read the eulogy all the way through without crying or needing more than one puff on her inhaler, which was a triumph for the whole, broken family, since Mrs. Petruny’s house had gotten dusty since she’d come home from the hospital.
“What do you think?” Anna said to their mother.
“It’s good,” Mrs. Petruny said.
“Any suggestions?” Gail said.
“Who’s going to read it at my funeral?”
“We haven’t decided that,” Reeny said. “But since Anna’s the teacher, I vote for her.”
“I hate public speaking,” Gail said.
Anna gave a cheerful shrug. “I don’t mind reading it.”
“Then it’s settled,” Gail said, taking a sip from her water bottle. “Anna will read it.”
Mrs. Petruny raised her dinky wrist in the air. “Girls, if you don’t mind, I’d like to think about that.”
Then she motioned for Anna and Gail to leave, smiled at her youngest daughter, and patted the bed.
Jim English’s fiction has previously appeared in Magnolia Review, Hobart, Tishman Review, Riding Light, Liars’ League (London). Humor: McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (January 2016).