When Val pulled into the parking lot of the funeral home, all she could find was one remaining space next to the brown dumpster with the words “George S. Vile” on it. There they were. Those awful men at the door who, in their dark suits, pretended to care. What vultures! Organ music droned from a brightly-lit room – she saw the sky-light right away. Funeral homes hired political lobbyists, she knew, who gave them free reign to do whatever they wanted. Farmers, like her granddad, could bury or burn any dead chicken or cow in the back yard. But if they wanted to put a casket with a dead loved one inside, it was, by God, against the law.
Val saw the urn of her best friend right away, a lovely royal-blue color like the gym suits they wore in high school. Her friend Lizzie was good in everything, including hockey. “Ground sticks, ground sticks,” she smiled. It was in their final year at college that Lizzie called and said over the phone, “The most amazing thing, Valerie, is that I’m turning into an ant.
Her voice was different, higher pitched, yet totally believable. Val didn’t want to hang up on her but knew she must call someone, so after Lizzie described her “pitch-black segmented body and these marvelous swiveling antennae” — she hung up and called Lizzie’s parents.
Donald, her father, answered the phone.
“So, it’s happened,” he said. “It’s the family disease, the family curse. Her mother and I never got it but select members did.”
“The disease,” he continued, “has a horrid name. Schizoaffective disorder. Combination of schizophrenia and bipolar.”
He coughed and she imagined him mopping his brow.
She and Lizzy continued to stay in touch. Val looked up everything on the Internet. Prognosis: poor. Suicide rates high. Then a miracle happened. The discovery of a new medication. Clozaril.
Lizzy more or less had a good life on her Clozaril. She dropped out of college, but through the help of her father, got a paying job at the local library.
It was not long after that Val got a phone call. Lizzy was now a praying mantis, “with a wonderful long green body that makes me feel like a queen.”
Valerie groaned inside and called Donald for an update.
The story as she heard after, was common enough. No answer on the phone, and no answer at the door. Donald let himself into Lizzie’s apartment with a key.
Silence all around. The kitchen had been cleaned up, not a spot remained. In the bedroom, with the white curtains swaying in the open window, he found his daughter.
She lay on the floor, unmoving.
Lizzie was declared dead on arrival at the nearby hospital. An overdose of Clozaril, the miracle drug.
At the funeral home, Val, dressed in a slim black dress and black high heels, walked over to the urn and caressed it.
“I am so so sorry,” she whispered to her best friend.
The sermon was mercifully brief. Val hugged Donald and nodded sympathically to an unaffected sister who became a social worker. But where was Roger, the brilliant brother?
She walked outside into the sunshine. Roger stood under a magnolia tree, its pink petals fallen on the grass and also onto his thinning gray hair. What an odd man, she thought.
No sooner had the thought occurred, than he took off running. Running around the grounds like a school boy. While his sister was fumbling through college, he’d gotten a PhD in entomology, the study of bugs. Afterwards, his brain buzzed with noise like a bee. And then he was finished. Through. His life had been ruined by the same disease as his sister. He couldn’t be more than thirty-five years old.
“Roger,” she said after he returned, panting, and stood by the hearse that would take them to the cemetery. “I’d like your phone number, if I may.”
He told her in his thin raspy voice. Was he trying to sound like a bug? A fly? A lady bug? He barely made eye contact, but she was set on getting to know him better. She refused to let him kill himself like his sister had.
Valerie shared a house with her father and had the entire second floor for herself. She and Dad breakfasted together before they left for work. He was foreman of a construction company, while she was manager of a Starbucks. She told no one she couldn’t drink coffee or she’d start shaking like a flag on a windy day. Her responsibilities were many: hiring and firing, making up weekly schedules and bringing the days’ proceeds to the bank, always checking in her rear-view to see if she was being followed.
She looked out the huge bay window of the house. A fine day for her friend Roger to visit. She wondered if he could find the place. The grandfather clock on the wall began its mournful chime. Twelve dongs.
And there he was. Parking on the street in a small light-blue car. She never remembered the names of cars. She watched him getting out and didn’t realize a little smile turned up the corners of her mouth.
She stepped out onto the porch. White birch trees created a canopy of leaves on a small hill. She trotted down it, bending her knees so she wouldn’t fall. Roger waved up at her and then dashed up the hill. He wore khaki shorts and black Nikes with the logo that looked like rudders on a sled. He ran up the hill past her and then down again.
“Roger, please come in. My dad’s not home so we have the whole place to ourselves.”
He followed her into the living room and stared around in wonder. The grandfather clock on the wall ticked loudly. Roger moved around the room peering at everything, raising up his eye glasses to take a closer look at the clock.
Then he began to laugh. Softly at first but then getting a bit louder. What a strange sound.
“Roger, you sound like a donkey. Are you?” Val snapped.
“No,” he said, “I’m a horse’s ass.”
“Would you like to see my bedroom?” she asked.
He said nothing so she took his hand and led him upstairs. Her room, like everything else in the house, was immaculate. She was her father’s cook, maid, and companion.
She sat on the flowered bedspread and patted the place next to her. Roger took off his glasses, cleaned them on his shirt and sat next to her.
She took his face in her hands and kissed him on the lips. My, they were soft. And full. She’d never noticed before.
She felt him tremble. But he did know how to kiss. Yes, she thought, she would take him as her lover. They kissed more. She wanted to pull him down on the bed — no chaste woman, she – but thought better of it.
“I want to know everything about you,” she said, as she held his quivering hand.
“What’s your fondest dream?” she asked.
“To win,” he said.
“Win? Win what?”
“The race, silly. The race.”
She dismissed what he said as idiotic nonsense.
On a windy day in early May, Valerie was chatting with a regular customer at Starbucks. Val wore her hair piled up onher head and wore a regulation black cap slapped on top.
“Do you realize, Val,” said Donna, crading her latte ”That today is the Philadelphia Half Marathon.”
“Do tell,” laughed Valerie. “I could care less.” And she faked a yawn.
“Well, as manager of a Starbucks,” said Donna, “you should know about this. We customers will be talking about it.” She took a small sip of drink and then explained there was a local runner who was so good he’d been winning for six straight years.
“You’re kidding,” said Valerie, startled. “What’s his name?”
“Roger. Roger something.”
“Oh my God, Donna. I think I know him. If only I had a TV.”
At home later that night, Valerie watched replays of the marathon on YouTube. There he was, in last place, for a while, before long others dropped out and an even dozen were left. Roger wore the number “two” on his back; she pressed the “pause” button to get better views of him. He had a goofy grin on his face as he stared straight ahead, never looking behind him, as the other racers did.
Onlookers cheered behind yellow ropes. Ambulances and police cars were at the ready for the major injuries that always occurred.
Suddenly Roger sprang forward and raised his arms over his head, sprinting at a fantastic pace. He was probably singing or grunting or musing out loud as he approached the finish line with his scuttled brain.
Once there, he turned around to face his rivals, many lengths behind him. He easily backed into the red finish line, raised his arms and yelled a loud cry of victory
A silver trophy was placed into his arms and microphones were pushed into his face.
“I won this victory,” he said, “for my sister Lizzie, who rests beneath the ground. Thanks for your support. That’s all I have to say.”
Valerie could hear the buzzing of insects in the background; or was that Roger himself? She couldn’t tell.
He wiped his brow, took a sip of water, and wove his way through the crowd, a tall man with thin muscular legs – a jarring white color — and looking down at the ground, broke out into a huge grin.
Ruth Z. Deming, a psychotherapist, has had her work published in lit mags including The Legendary, Literary Yard, Mad Swirl and Writing Disorder. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. She runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones. Her blog is http://www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com/
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