guest-edited by Jennine Capó Crucet
Bobby brought you back to me today. You look almost the same, maybe a little different around the mouth. Your lips are too hard. Bobby tells me that can be fixed. “Light a candle,” he says. “And hold it to his mouth. Not right up close, but under the chin. When you see him start to sweat, take your fingers and press his lips around any way you want. That’ll do it.”
I don’t want to try it at first. It’s taken so much out of me to get you back. To have you again, to see your face. I don’t want to mess all that up. Imagine if I made a mistake, if my hand was nervous or the candle too strong, and your mouth smeared, or worse, you got wounded. I say, “Thanks, Bobby, maybe I’ll try it.”
Bobby says, “There’s no use in being unsatisfied, Miss Lillian.” Then he leaves us alone together.
Your first morning back, we sit at the dining room table, just the two of us. Even though it’s breakfast time, I make you your favorite meal: red beans and rice and sausage. It took me forever to learn how to make it. Before we were married, I was not a kitchen girl. I was the girl who made a point of hanging out with the men while everyone else cooked. I would come into the kitchen in my tightest dress, my nails all painted red and say, smiling into the other women’s sweaty faces, “I just don’t know how you all do it.”
After we married, none of your sisters, not even your mother, would teach me how to make it. They figured you married a girl they didn’t like, your stomach should suffer. They thought maybe if you had to eat my cooking night after night you’d run away from me, to the table or the bed of somebody better. But they underestimated me. I taught myself how. I was too proud to ask my own mother. Any girl with half a brain knows how to make red beans and rice and sausage. The first tour you did, after we were married, when you were away with the band, I made it every night for a week. I ate burnt, bland rice and soggy sausages till the tips of my fingers smelt like salted meat. And I got it right. I got it right.
The first time I made it for you the right way, it was the middle of the night. You’d just come back from the final stop of the tour, from Mississippi, I think. You were still in the tuxedo you wore on stage. I was in bed. You jumped on top of me to wake me up, like you used to do, but before we could start anything, I took your hand and I said, “Wait.”
I led you to the kitchen and I made you sit there at the table. You were like a little boy, you couldn’t wait. You kept crossing and uncrossing your legs. You would get up and follow me around the room while I cooked, pull at the strings of my bathrobe. But I said, “Wait.”
When I was done, I put the plate before you. I sat down, lit a cigarette, pointed at you with the burning end. “Eat,” I said, and you did.
You ate and ate and when you were done, you lifted the plate to your mouth and licked its whole face clean. And I smoked my cigarette the whole time, pretending like it was nothing, but feeling only something joyful inside.
So for your first meal back, I put a plate before you and a plate before me. I have some champagne: the good kind with the cork, not the bottle cap. I put two candles on the table, and I light them, let their flames burn against the weak morning sun peeping under the blinds. I put a glass in your hand and I toast you. And I look to you, to your face, but it’s off. It’s wrong. So I put down my glass.
I take the candle in my hand.
I hold the flame under your chin.
I look at you, full into your eyes, which I only did once and awhile, before you left me. I look at you until I see the tiniest beads of sweat form on your upper lip.
Then I set the candle down. I take my thumbs gently to your face; mold your lips until they’re set a little softer, until they look right. Then I pick up my glass again and I toast us. And I start to cry. I cry harder than I did when you died. I cry, and cry, with only your pretty wax face, with the glass eyes I asked Bobby to put in, watching me.
When my mother found out I was going to marry you she said, “A man like that, you’ll always end up sleeping at his back. He’ll never sleep at yours.” And I was ashamed, because how did she know it was already like that with you, that that was how we slept every night together? Our first night lying side by side, you slept with your smiling, open face to the wall and I was the one who curved to your back, stuck too close for comfort.
We met at a show, of course. I was there with my cousin Morris. He was trying to get into your band, and I stood up at the front of the crowd with him. He said, “Delmore’s nickname is the Emperor of the Universe,” and I laughed and said, “Who gave him that one? He make it up himself? I’m the Queen of Sheba, if that’s the case.”
And then you came out on stage. You’d just started wearing the blue tux in the act. You stood at the front of the stage and looked down at the crowd and after about the fourth or fifth song, you sang only to me. The hit, your only hit, had just come out. You sang it ten times in a row, and each time you sang it, you made the words dirtier. I was a grown woman when we met, or at least, I thought I was, but still the things you put in that song were so dirty they made me blush. To this day I can’t hear it on the radio without my face getting hot. The band at your funeral played it and our youngest granddaughter, Isis, she danced to it and it made me laugh and it made me cry and it made me blush all over again to see her in the middle of St. Claude Avenue, four year-old shoulders shaking to a love song.
When my mother told me I would end up always sleeping at your back, I knew I had to prove her wrong. The hardest part about loving you was pretending I didn’t care so much. So many girls cared about you. Before you married me proper, in the house on Barracks Street there lived Anita and Mary and Maureen. You knew enough not to mention their names, and the other names, to me. But I knew who they were. I saw them at the bar when we went out, late at night. They would look at me and then they would look at you with burned out eyes. They loved you so much it burned the life out of them, and who wants a woman like that? It scared you away from them to me. So I taught myself to keep my eyes cool, to look as if I didn’t care so much, so you would love me best.
All over town you knew you’d get a warm welcome but with me, you were never sure if I would grab your face and kiss your cheeks or blow smoke in your ear and only half-listen to your stories. When you’d come home from a long tour, I’d be sweet at first, maybe for an hour, maybe two, just so you’d know what you were missing. But then it was work. Fix the porch. Change the light bulb. Play bass and sing at my mother’s church, because I’d already promised you would.
I said, “I don’t care if you got hundreds of girls screaming your name two weeks straight.”
I said I didn’t care if you lived your life away from me in a baby blue tuxedo and a fancy moustache.
I said, “All I care about is you being a good man to me,” and I never let you see how surprised I was that you submitted. That you gladly submitted. You laughed and took off your tuxedo and put on work pants. I would have been so happy if you kept your tuxedo on forever, but you took it off for me. You fixed the porch. You took your bass and picked up every solo in my mother’s choir. I wasn’t in the habit of ever saying that I loved you. I said it to you only three times when we were married, the day each of our sons were born, though you told me you loved me often enough. And when I wouldn’t say anything back, when I would just smile, you’d wink at me and call me a cold woman.
Your family wasn’t fooled. It’s why they hated me. They saw through it and they were frightened. When you told your sister Betty you were going to marry me, she said it would end badly. That I loved you too fierce. That my kind of love is wrong. She said women like me ruin the things they love. They will draw the breath of life out of a man, till his heart stops. And when they’re done, when they’ve ruined his very lungs, she said women like me go down one of two paths. They either get hysterical for what they’ve lost, flinch at the empty air around them, fall apart at the lightest touch. Or they go the other way. They look at the love they’ve ruined and they become petrified, airless as a stone. Betty said, “When it’s all over, Delmore, when she’s ruined the both of you, Lillian will go the hard way. Just you wait.”
You told Betty she was crazy. That she didn’t know what she was talking about and then you told me what she said.
And I knew then that your family understood me perfectly. They recognized the darkest part of me: that I’ve got a weak and greedy heart. And because of this I was ashamed. I decided then and there that your family was my enemy and I had to get better at hiding my heart from you.
I’m talking to you about my heart but you know, if you cracked my chest open, where my heart should be you’d only find a hungry mouth, tongue moving, teeth gnashing, ready to eat the world and you who live in it. Nothing is ever enough for my heart.
So our whole married life became me hiding my heart from you. I knew if you ever saw it for what it was, what it really was, the empty, gaping maw of it, you couldn’t love me anymore.
I tricked you into loving me best. And every night for the thirty years we were married, it was you who wound yourself around me, you who stayed close to my back. You fitted your chin into the hollow of my neck and put one arm around my hip, curled the other around my shoulder, held a loose fist over my lively, sleeping heart.
You died Mardi-Gras morning. We woke up before dawn. You had to get ready early because you’re Skeleton Crew. You and your boys get up when it’s still dark and you dress up like ghouls, and you meet on St. Claude Avenue at dawn, to creep up and down the streets and scare everyone else, all the other crews and all of our neighbors: you scare them into parading out on Mardi-Gras morning.
I heard you get out of bed before me. You washed and put on your suit of bones and your smiling skull mask. The boys came to pick you up just as the light was starting. I answered the door while you got yourself together. You came up behind me, and I turned and saw that even at fifty-eight, you were the best-made skeleton there. But I didn’t say it. Rex handed you a cow leg bone, a big one, long and thick and still red from the butcher and you took it and slung it over your shoulder. You kissed my cheek and I kissed the starchy canvas of your skeleton mask. And then you and the boys were gone, and I went back to bed, to sleep and wait for you for the rest of Mardi-Gras morning.
And you came back to me, you did, you crawled into bed beside me after the sun was up and the room was full of light. You put your arms around me and you said, “I got Bobby real good.”
“What’d you do?” I said.
“He was coming home, he was still nice from last night, you know? And I got him as he came out of the bar. I made Rex and his boy, the little one, crouch down on one side, and I hid behind a mailbox. And we followed Bobby for maybe two blocks and then we got him.” You laughed. “You should have seen his face,” you said.
And that’s when you started to leave me. Your arms went heavy on me, your skin went hot, and your mouth stretched wide, too wide, and I got out of bed. The biggest mistake of my life. I got out of bed while you were dying to call a damn doctor. So you didn’t die with your arms around me, like you should have. When I came back I knew it was too late. You’d left me. I climbed back in bed. I turned you on your side and pressed into your back to try and make you warm again. I cried and cried but it wasn’t any use. You weren’t ever coming back.
I got the idea during your funeral. We’d just walked you to the grave, we’d just put you in and we were starting the long walk back. Our oldest son held my arm. He said, “Mommy, you’ll be all right.” Your sisters were there and even though they were crying too, even though it was death, they still took the time to give me the cold once over and whisper about my shoes. So I walked with our first son at my side and your family hating me, and I thought how much I wished they were you. How I wished everyone there were you. We were walking through the cemetery and I looked at the tombs around us, all those marble tombs standing up over the ground, with the fancy stone angels on top. And that’s when I got the idea.
I waited a few weeks before I told anyone my plan. I knew if I said it right away, they’d say I wasn’t serious, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. That it was grief talking. As if grief is a temporary thing, like being drunk. As if I’ll wake up in a few days time with a dry mouth and a sore head and fading regrets. My grief is a bone. It grew inside me when I touched your cold skin, and it got muscles and ligaments and blood when I watched them put you in the ground. And now my grief’s like a sixth finger or a tail on my behind: embarrassing to other people maybe, maybe something rude, but a part of me just the same.
When you first left me I wanted to find the god who allowed this to happen and reach inside his chest and rip his heart out. Set it on fire and blow the smoke that came up out of it into his watering eyes. I thought a lot about which god I could get at, which one I’d have a good chance at scrabbling with. Not Jesus. He’d give it up too easy. He’d pull the skin on his chest back and hand me his heart and probably the match too. I wanted a fair fight. I wanted the god to lose. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have a heart. And God god, the one in charge, I didn’t even let myself think about. That’s blasphemy. I’d take a little bit of god, maybe, maybe one of the saints. I’d take one of them and put a hurt on him so deep, he wouldn’t even know it. He’d be hollowed out by the time I was finished with him.
A month after the funeral I asked Bobby over for dinner. He came right away. He said, “Of course, Miss Lillian. How you holding up?”
I didn’t make rice and beans. For Bobby it was spaghetti from the can. I hadn’t cooked in weeks. I said, “Bobby, you know I like to get straight to the point.”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s the truth.”
“Bobby, I want Delmore back,” I said.
“I do too, Miss Lillian.”
“So we’re gonna bring him back.”
Bobby stopped eating. He opened his eyes wide. He said, “What do you mean, Miss Lillian?”
“I want you to make Delmore for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that. I want you to make Delmore for me. You gotta make him like this,” and I pointed to my t-shirt. I was wearing your memorial t-shirt, the one the kids had printed for the funeral. It has your picture and the words “Sunrise” beside your birthday and “Sunset” beside the day you died: March 3rd, 1998. The picture on it is of you from two Mardi Gras ago. You’re sitting on the coachman’s seat of a horse and carriage. You have on your gold crown and purple cape and you have a scepter in your hand and your arms are open wide to the camera. The kids also had “Emperor of the Universe” printed above the whole thing. Since the funeral I’ve worn this t-shirt every day. Mine is fluorescent yellow, and I think our boys skimped a little on the price because the ink is already starting to flake off. It’s ok. I got more shirts when this one fades. I told the kids to give me all the extras.
I said, “When you make him, you gotta match him to this picture. This one here. I’ll get you the original.”
“I don’t understand,” Bobby said.
I asked Bobby because he’s the best. He’s an artist. But he’s not too bright. He’s kinda slow on the uptake. He makes all the costumes for the crews. I’ve seen him thread a square of cardboard the size of a stop sign with beads as small as a grain of rice in one afternoon: just when he’s sitting around with the boys, drinking beer and watching girls on TV. His hands do beautiful things so I knew he could make you right.
“Bobby, you’re gonna make me another Delmore. I’ll pay, don’t worry. I’ll pay for your time and materials. I was thinking wood, maybe. Like a nice sycamore or oak. And you could stain it a good brown. Maybe you could do him in brass.”
“Miss Lillian, you are talking crazy,” he said. He kept saying this, but eventually I talked him around.
Once he got used to the idea he told me wood was all wrong. Too expensive, first of all, and it would take a long time to carve. And then, we would have to hollow you out so that I could manage you: so that you were light enough to lift and dress and carry. “Your best bet is wax,” he said.
He did do it to that picture I wanted, that one exactly. Bobby made you so your legs are always bent. You are always sitting down. Your head he was able to do right away: he had a friend who worked at the department store downtown who let him borrow mannequins to practice on. He filled the hollows of their necks with hot wax, let it cool and harden, then split the domes of their plaster skulls to get at the base wax head he wanted to work with underneath.
His first try he got your profile pretty good but your eyes were wrong. He painted two black pupils and two pools of white where they should be. When I saw them I said, “Those don’t look like my Delmore’s eyes. I need them real when he looks at me.” And I gave him more money for glass.
The money was the hardest part. The wax, Bobby’s labor, all of that didn’t come cheap. He wanted to use chinchilla for your hair and eyelashes, but I barely had enough for the glass eyes. To an out-of-town collector I sold your only gold record and an autographed picture of you with all the greats. It was hardest to see the record go. It’s true you had it before we met. But after we started going together you took it off the wall one night and scratched my name and yours on one of the metal ridges, the one up closest to the center. I didn’t care about selling the photo. In that, you’re in the back, behind the greats. You’re straining your neck to be seen and your face is too eager. I don’t ever remember seeing you that way when you were alive.
Since you’ve left me, your things are mine to do with as I please but your sisters don’t think so. Betty heard about the sale and she called me up, sniffing around. “What you need cash for, Lillian?” she said. She knows it’s greed at the root of it, but she thinks I’m greedy for money. I said, “Betty, kindly mind your own.” I made Bobby swear not to tell anybody what he was doing for me.
Bobby got a special brown wax to match your color just right. And for your hair, I knew you had to wear it how you always wore it: in a conk. I found a wig at a store downtown, long and curly, the tag in the bag said it was a mermaid cut. I trimmed the ends so it would hang right on your head.
And then he brought you, all of you, to me this morning, and we ate our reunion meal, and I cried because it was so good, finally, to look into something like your face again.
After breakfast, I take off the memorial t-shirt for the first time in a month. I put on my tightest dress, the white one with the gold flowers that you like. And you, I put you in one of the blue tuxedos, and I even get your crown and scepter down from the closet and put those on you. Your wedding band is in your casket so in its place I slide a ring with a red glass stone onto your left ring finger. And then we sit.
I hadn’t thought about this part. I had been so excited just to have you with me, I didn’t think about what we would do all day together. We sit like that, all dressed up, until I lose my nerve. I get up, leave you on the couch, go about my day dressed to kill with you sitting stiff on the sofa. At night I get my nerve back.
We eat dinner together again, and another bottle of champagne, and this time I drink your glasses as well as mine. So I am ready. At ten at night I lift you in my arms and I walk the few blocks to the bar. I push the door open with my shoulder and then I carry you over the threshold. I know what we look like: a mixed-up bride and groom, but I try not to care. I carry you anyways. I carry you safely into the smoke and the clinking glasses and the soft hum of the radio and I sit you on the barstool and I say, “A bourbon for him and a whiskey sour for me,” to Nate behind the bar.
Nate says, “Lillian Brown, you have lost your mind.”
And I say, “All the more reason to make me a drink.”
He pours for me and he pours for you. The first hour we are there, everyone leaves us alone. The men at the end of the bar huddle together and watch me drink but pretend that they aren’t looking. In the bar, in the shine of the Christmas lights stretched all over the place, your wax doesn’t look so harsh. It looks almost like the flesh of you. As I drink, my eyelids get heavy. You know how liquor makes me sleepy. When we were first going out, you told me you could tell I was a good girl at heart, despite my painted nails and fancy dresses, because two hard shots of liquor and I was asleep on your shoulder. So I drink and we sit in the warm gloom of the bar, my eyes half-closed, your eyes sometimes catching the light.
As the night picks up and it becomes clear I’m not going to make much trouble, everyone ignores us. The men drink. A few women come in. I hold your hand in mine but you, of course, can only look straight ahead. I watch us both in the mirror behind the bar.
I think we’ve had enough. I’m waiting for our tab when one of the younger men comes up to us. It’s one of Rex’s kids, the older one, Man-Man. He is drunk by now, and he comes up to the two of us. His smile is too big.
“Miss Lillian,” he shouts, “What is wrong with you, girl? You are crazy. What is this?”
I hold my back straight but my insides are flinching.
“You know who it is.” I say, “This here is Delmore. And you better show him some respect.”
Man-Man laughs at that. “This is Delmore? This doll is Delmore?”
And then he picks you up from the barstool. Too easy. I told Bobby to make you heavier, that I needed a weight on you, but he seems to think my arms are too weak, or will be soon, to carry you.
Man-Man picks you up and holds you in his arms and then he starts to dance with you. The other men laugh: his friends outright, the older ones nervously. The ones that are still sober watch my face, looking to see what I will do. Man-Man isn’t watching. He is holding you in his arms and waltzing with you, dipping you here and there, spinning. Then he holds you against his front and does a lewd grind. And I keep my face absolutely still. I keep murder in my eye. I sip my drink while Man-Man dances with you and inside of me the bone of my grief is growing.
Man-Man is getting too boisterous. He goes to slip you through his legs in a dip and he looses hold of your arms and you fall to the bar room floor. When he tries to pick you up, the wig catches on his watchband. When he finally gets you straight you are bald-headed, the shame of your scalp flashed to the bar, your conk dangling from that fool boy’s wrist.
Everyone stops talking. The bar is quiet except for the radio. Man-Man looks at the long silky hair caught up on his wrist, at your smiling, unchanging wax face. And then he looks at me, where I sit at the bar, my eyes all hard and shiny.
“Jesus, Miss Lillian,” he says. “Sorry, Miss Lillian. I’m so sorry.”
When he speaks, the other men join in. They start to scold him. “You’re a fool, Man-Man,” one of them yells at him, and even his friends, his own boys, boo him, call him stupid.
He holds you in his arms more gently now. He sits you first beside me and then he very carefully picks each strand of the wig out of his wristwatch band. He makes sure not to break a single hair. When he’s untangled the wig, he shakes it out a little bit, curves the bangs into a curl with a sweep of his hand, then sits it on top of your head.
Then he looks you in the eye and he says, “My apologies, Delmore. I didn’t mean any disrespect to you or your woman. Nate,” he calls, “Get Miss Lillian a drink. And one for Delmore, too. It’s on me.”
After that, everyone wants to buy us a round. The men put cigars between your fingers. They want to light them but I stop them. I don’t want you melting.
Another young man comes through the bar door. When he sees you and me sitting at the bar, he makes a face, as if he is about to laugh or be sick. I see it and I steel myself for more. But Man-Man, who is beside us now, sees it too. He gets up and claps his hands around the young man’s shoulders. He says, “What’s your name, son?”
“Roy,” the boy says.
“Well, Roy,” Man-Man says, “I noticed you looking. And I can’t help but ask, have you ever met the Emperor of the Universe?”
Man-Man brings him over to your stool. He explains to the boy that you’re a very special case: only the third man in history to come back from the dead, after Lazarus and Our Lord Jesus Christ, of course. The boy is looking from your wax face to Man-Man to me, trying to figure out what is up.
Man-Man explains that you’ve been granted this favor because you are the son of a lion and a woman. He’s drunk again by this point, enjoying the confusion on the boy’s face. He says that you managed to get a drink after death and the least us humans could do is pay you respect for it. He says that you love a good drink and a pretty woman so much you made your spirit wax so that you could enjoy them both again.
Man-Man say all that stuff about me is sweet. Even in the dark of the bar I can see where my skin is too soft, where the dress is too tight, where I wish that I could be like you are now, all hard and smooth.
Roy is looking around the room for his friends now. Man-Man sees he is getting restless, so he points to me and says: “You can’t leave until you say hello to the woman the Emperor of the Universe came back for. Wouldn’t you come back from the dead for pretty Miss Lillian?”
The boy, poor Roy, smiles nervously. But he says, “Of course.” He says, “Of course I’d come back from the dead for Miss Lillian.”
I smile wide at Roy and this makes Man-Man happy. Relieved. He claps his hands, laughs loud and says, “You know, you’re all right, Roy. But you can’t leave yet. You have to kiss his ring.”
And so the boy obediently bows his head over your hand, purses his lips and kisses the glass gemstone I’ve set on a ring there.
I never thought, in all our years together, I could walk with my heart out like this, with my heart dipped in wax and sitting beside me on a barstool, and be met with anything other than laughter or fear. I never thought somebody would like my heart enough to buy it a drink and give it cigars, and kiss the false jewels I’ve stuck on it.
When we finally leave there are four full glasses of bourbon on the bar in front of us. What we couldn’t finish between us. Man-Man himself carries you to our front door and sits you back down on the couch. It is a good night after all.
Once Man-Man’s stumbled out the door, I get up and put the kettle on. I sit and hold your hand while I wait for it to boil. When the water is ready, I get up, take three hot water bottles down from a shelf in the linen closet. I fill them up, wrap them in a towel so my hands won’t burn on the rubber, and bring them back to where you sit. I slip one down the front of your shirt; a second I lay carefully in your lap; the third I place at your feet. I take your hand again, laugh a little at the belly you have now spread across your knees.
We sit like this for about twenty minutes. I think you’re almost ready for bed when the phone rings. I haven’t been answering my phone since you left, but I’m curious who it could be at this hour. I pick it up. Your sister Betty’s voice is on the other end, furious.
“You stupid woman,” she says. “You could never leave that man alone when he was alive. And now you can’t leave him in peace. You’ve got some dummy of him dressed up and drinking with you? It’s a disgrace.”
Nate called her as soon as I left. He told her he was worried about me. But Betty isn’t worried.
“It’s harmless.” I say. “It’s a good time. We’re not hurting anybody. That’s all I can say about it, Betty.”
But she won’t accept this as an answer. She yells at me until I put the phone down. I stand up, ease the first bottle out of your shirt, take the second bottle out of your lap. I put them on the coffee table, then hoist you into my arms. Your wax is good and warm against me, your arms are slick. I overdid it with the heat.
I take you into our room and lay you on our bed. I ease off the tuxedo jacket, unbutton your dress shirt, pull the undershirt over your head. The boxers I have to force over your knees. I stand up, shrug off my dress, and then I get underneath the sheet with you.
It doesn’t matter now, if I sleep at your back or you sleep at mine. You can’t really sleep at my back anymore anyways. I curl myself around you where you make a C in the bed. I fit my arms under yours. I press the palm of my hand to the wax of your chest, then I curl my hand into a ball, knock on your chest once, twice, over and over again. I fall asleep to the sound of my knuckles beating your heart.
Kaitlyn Greenidge’s work has appeared in The Believer, Green Mountains Review, Apogee Journal, At Length Magazine, Guernica and elsewhere. Her interview with Victor LaValle was included in the anthology Always Apprentices: The Believer Magazine Presents. She has received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference (2010-2012) and was a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Work Space fellow as well as Johnson State College’s 2011 Visiting Emerging Writer. She received her MFA from Hunter College where she was a Hertog Fellow. She hosts a podcast on writing and writers, The Workshop, with the novelist Bill Cheng. Her debut novel We Love You Charlie Freeman is forthcoming from Algonquin Press.