BURIALS by M. M. Kaufman
I LEAVE HIS APARTMENT the day of what would have been our wedding. With my mom’s help, it only took me two days to pack up all my things.
“You look better in black anyway,” Mom says. She picks a piece of lint off of my sweatshirt.
We’re hauling the last load of boxes to the moving truck.
Doorbell, our dog, now just my dog, runs around the courtyard in hysterics. I have unleashed her and thrown her favorite toy into the bushes, which are full of stray cats.
“Thanks, Mom,” I mumble. I pick up another box, one that is too heavy for one person. I am showing off. My back is on fire.
Doorbell is happy to be back. She hasn’t been here since my mother picked her up for me. I probably would have left her with him. I would have left all of my things. But he hadn’t been here to feed her it turned out. He hadn’t been home since the night of the rehearsal dinner. His lawyer tells me later he was, and is, staying with a friend, indefinitely.
In the lobby of the apartment building, I peel the black and gold stickers of my last name off our mail slot. I had planned to do this after we married. The letters are extremely sticky and keep curling up on my fingers. I never realized how long my name is until it’s stuck all over my hands.
“It’s true,” Mom continues, “you always have. Black really thins you out. Makes me look like I’m trying to hide forty pounds.”
“Which I am, thank you very much.” Mom pulls junk mail, magazines, and bills from the mail slot. She tosses the junk mail in the trash, stuffs the magazines down the front pocket of her overalls, and tucks the bills back inside the slot.
I try to spell my name along my forearm with the stickers, but I can’t keep them straight. As soon as I unfurl a letter and get it in the right spot, the rest curl up and I have to unroll each one to remember which is which.
Mom plucks the letters from my hands and sticks them in the right order across her front. “When your father and I got married, and I took his name, it took me years to get used to it. I even spelled it wrong on my driver’s license.” She pats the stickers and narrows her eyes.
“I loved your father,” she says, “but he was always two steps ahead of me. Always had our future planned, step-by-step. Now that he’s dead, God rest his soul, I move forward and he stays in the same spot. I learn new jokes and he keeps telling the same ones over and over.”
Doorbell skids into the lobby. The doorman chases after her. He is not a dog person.
“Ma’am, you need to leash this animal or leave.”
I do both.
It’s now been three months of me laying around in my childhood home in sweatpants, haphazardly setting up a darkroom in the shed, turning down freelance offers, and only leaving the house to walk Doorbell.
Mom has had enough. She says if I can’t be happy yet, she’ll settle for some anger. Anything but this.
“Lists his worst qualities,” she shouts across the kitchen, “or nasty habits. Go on.”
Her last words get lost in the sizzle of potato chunks frying in the cast iron pan.
I say nothing. It’s not that he doesn’t, didn’t, have any bad habits. It’s just that I can’t think of anything except the burnt taste of the toast she keeps putting on my plate. Each piece getting blacker as they come.
“I know you refuse to talk about it, but c’mon. How could you not have seen this coming? You don’t get dumped a week before your wedding and have no any idea why, honey.”
Except I don’t have any idea why. I only knew something was wrong when he was late for the rehearsal dinner, or rather that he wasn’t early. He was never late, never not three minutes early in fact. When he wasn’t there by 6:57, it was evident to me what was clear to everyone else three hours later. He was never going to come.
Our only communication after that, besides my one unfortunate episode at the lobby of his law firm, was through lawyers about the sale of his apartment, of which I was legally only a tenant.
“Even after your father passed, honey, at some point I had to remind myself he always forgot my birthday and had terrible breath.”
She sets a steaming plate of hash browns on the table in front of me.
“I’m not saying burn an effigy, though I’m not against that, but you gotta get pissed in order to push forward. You need that fire.”
I don’t answer her, but move the plate and put my head down on the wooden table. I rest my cheek on the warm spot the plate created. Instead of feeling the heat absorb into my skin, I feel the table cool.
She pulls me out of my chair, pushes me to the front door, shoves car keys in one of my hands and my father’s nine iron golf club in the other. She is sending me back to see the apartment, my home, scraped, gutted, and made fresh again.
“A little destruction can go a long way for the heart,” she says. “Whether you use the golf club or not, don’t bring it home. Just chuck in the river or something. That’s his last club.”
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You just take it to that apartment and see what happens. Did you know that when your father died I took Bootsy down to the funeral parlor? I made that damn dog smell his body right in the coffin. Otherwise he never would’ve stopped waiting at the door for him to come home.”
I squat down and hook Doorbell’s leash to her collar. I pick up her paws as I stand, so it looks like she is dancing with me.
“So you want Doorbell to go smell the apartment?”
“No, I want you both to. The lawyer called. I didn’t wanna tell you yet, but the apartment’s sold. It’s in escrow so you still have time. Take that golf club and swing at something. Face up to what happened. Embrace it or say fuck off. Just do something. I’m tired of living with a zombie.”
When I open the apartment door, Doorbell runs around me into the kitchen, her claws scratching on the bare, hardwood floors. From the kitchen she runs to the living room and circles the corner where her toys were kept, where the three of us used to play tug of war. There is nothing there for her now. She looks at me and lets out a high-pitched whine.
I sit down beside her and hold the golf club across my lap.
She wanders away to look for her toys elsewhere.
I stand up and grip the club, hard. I spin around in a circle, my arms stretched out long, letting the club swing through the empty space of the apartment.
Here is where I would have shattered the stained glass chandelier. Here I would have put a hole in the lampshade his mother gave us. Here I would have snapped the arm of his reading chair. But none of these things are here anymore.
Doorbell dashes into the kitchen, stands on her hind legs, and licks the counter for any lingering bits of food. She doesn’t need to grieve. She just needs treats.
I sit down by the window and realize it’s been left open. The new owners must have been here. I hear a clicking sound and jump, turning around to the door.
It is only Doorbell pushing her snout into a cabinet.
My breath had caught in my chest. It might have been him. Of course it wasn’t, he took a job across the country a month ago. A transfer, not a promotion, I heard.
Normally, this was the time he came home, right on the dot. And this is the place I would sit, on the floor underneath the window. When he’d walk in, he asked how his favorite squatters were doing. I couldn’t argue with the logic. Neither could Doorbell.
I follow Doorbell through each room.
I walk through the living room, the kitchen, down the hallway, to the bathroom, but my mind is full of static. It’s as if I am walking through a hotel suite, a space with a palpable, but invisible, history. The five years I lived here appear to me like an alternate universe. This is a kitchen I may have cooked hundreds of meals in. This is an oven in which I may have set his law books on fire, not knowing he kept them there. This is a hallway we may have had lined with photographs from our childhoods. This is a bathroom I may have failed several pregnancy tests in. Sometimes I may have laughed and said Thank you, baby Jesus. And sometimes I may have cried. Sometimes he may have been with me. And sometimes not. This walk-in closet may have been what I used as a dark room. It may have been his face that washed up so many times on the slick paper underneath red light.
I save the bedroom for last.
As I walk towards it, Doorbell runs in ahead of me to the spot where her bed used to be, beside the large, empty fireplace.
She paws at the spot and sniffs, then races to where the love seat, end tables, and our bed once were. She is looking for something to hide under and I don't blame her.
It is colder than I expected as I twist my body inside the fireplace. I curl my legs under myself, stacking them carefully in order to fit. I call for Doorbell to come sit with me.
She looks, then turns in a circle, and resettles herself to face away from me.
I stare at the back of her head and wonder what she is thinking. There are five feet between us, but she is miles away.
As I sit there, I feel a growing heat rise and spread across my skin.
“What happened?” I hear myself scream, as if the words didn’t come from my mouth.
Doorbell crawls over to me then, low and sheepish.
I’ve scared her. I’ve scared myself.
I climb out of the fireplace and Doorbell stands up. She is relieved that I am ready to go.
I look down at her and know that she will follow me anywhere. She would wait for me anywhere, for however long it took me to come back to her.
I kneel down and wrap my arms around her. She licks my cheek, as I leash her collar around the gate of the fireplace.
She watches me move away from her to the door. She pulls at the gate, but it is attached to the floor and she can’t free herself. She yelps as she scratches the dusty tile, trying to get to me.
I want to look away, but I don’t. I force myself to stare into her eyes, see the dust already gathering on her whiskers, as I walk backwards out of the room.
I turn off the lights and lock the door as I leave. I can hear her cries ring off the walls as I retreat back down the hallway of the apartment building. Each bark calls out to me, asks me to wake up, go back, open the door, and set her free.
But she will stay here. And I will go anywhere else.
M. M. KAUFMAN is a fiction writer and poet from Georgia. She has spent time in Indonesia as a Fulbright scholar and received an honorable mention for two of her poems in the 2017 Vassar Miller Poetry Award. She currently lives in New Orleans where she is an associate editor at Bayou Magazine and is pursuing her MFA in the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans.