GEOLOGY by Meredith K. Gray
IT SOUNDS LIKE A TERRIBLE prank call, this call she is going to make to her father—the question, Where is Mom? sounding hideous and unnecessary or even abstract, as though he is going to have to explain to a thirty-year-old woman his views on heaven or the afterlife. Rae. Mom is dead, she would expect him to say, slow and as if to a child, which she often believes she still is. It’s been a whole year.
But this is not what she will ask of him—that is not her question. She fears her mother has been misplaced. That is, she doesn’t know where her mother’s ashes are and at this very second, as she stands, still in her office work outfit at nine p.m. folding bath towels in front of the television, this mystery has become very troubling to her. It is the same feeling that she experiences upon realizing that she doesn’t remember the location of a favorite necklace. When she gets on these kicks she will not stop until she finds what she is looking for, and if she cannot find it, she will disintegrate into a sweaty, sleepless worry that takes her into a thrashing night, imagining the wide gaps of the floorboards and out-turned pockets at the gym. Now, with a stack of fluffy towels and a re-run of The Simpsons on the television, she is altogether disgusted and terrified by herself that she is putting her mother—the body of her mother!—on the same level as a cheap silver necklace. Like she is something that could have been misplaced. And if so, replaced? Everything in the room is bathed in a nauseous, yellow light.
Rae had known where she—her mother—was for quite a while. She was in, of all things, a shopping bag (yes, the cremation society issued shopping bags–inappropriate, it seemed, but she couldn’t imagine what else they would use) that was kept, inexplicably, on the seat of a chair at her father’s dining room table. Rae had insisted on the cheapest of the urns (a “scattering urn,” one that wasn’t meant to be kept—only a temporary vessel, but don’t get Rae started on the idea of what a temporary vessel is) and then her father had wanted a name plate. At the time she’d laughed internally, if this was possible—how could they have needed a name plate? How many urns did they have lying around the house? How could they lose it?
How could they?
It was likely not lost. She tells herself this three times, perched on the edge of the couch and chewing a hangnail. She doesn’t know how to ask about it. Mom? Where is Mom?
Questions like this, with their sick, baby bird cadence, make her guts swirl. Rae presses her smeary face into the impractical, creamy mass of towels, and crumples over in a linty, polyester slacks mess.
She decides to take a tranquilizer, a relic of the generous and supportive psychiatrist whose services she’d left six months earlier. Rae is a hoarder, careful with the dispensation of valuable, comforting treasures. She could stretch an Easter basket nearly to the end of summer vacation, and hence, she is only halfway through her last prescription. No refills. Chocolate bunnies, those waxy totems, have no real expiration date, while anything ending in “azepam” likely does.
Half an hour later, in a floaty spurt of purpose, arms feeling extra-long and rubbery, she guides these noodley things to her face with her phone dialed. Dad.
Hi, she says. Sometimes she identifies herself and sometimes she doesn’t; she realizes that before the days of ring tones paired to a caller and the insistent flashing name, she always said who it was, as though someone else who sounded like her would have been calling.
Her father takes care of this, announcing who she is—Ah, Rachel! My eldest! —as though there is an audience other than a fish tank and a gleaming set of green grocery store encyclopedias. He has moved from her childhood home to a downtown condo in Indianapolis, but has filled it with these relics, the fossils of their life on display in a sleek metal and glass case.
I had a question, she says.
You did? What happened to it?
Sorry. I have a question.
Shoot! I won’t even cheat.
Oh, just with your move. I don’t know. I wondered where–where maybe, some of Mom’s stuff was. Like—um, the box.
In spite of taking the pill, Rae trembles. She doesn’t like to call him and say anything about her dead mother. She can’t help him feel better or prevent the feelings that he might feel when she says the things she doesn’t want to say. Most of the time, then, she doesn’t. She doesn’t say much at all.
The box? The box of the rocks?
This is his first thought, she thinks. Yes, the rocks. Ha ha ha! In a manner of speaking! Rae does not say this, but the corners of her mouth turn up, egging on the words under her tongue like a drunk friend would. Say it, say it.
The laugh pushes up like a thought bubble, but she keeps her mouth shut, but then says Yes, which is the kind of lie she tells. Yes, that’s what I mean. Mom’s rock collection.
The rocks were a bizarre hobby of her mother’s. She would collect them—nothing valuable, but just the polished ones always for sale at truck stops and museum gift shops. Their significance was never established: iron pyrite from the St. Louis arch, a rose quartz from Door County, Wisconsin. She had kept them in a squat, polished wooden box and Rae had no idea where any of it was.
He says: I think I paid three grand for you to take geology in summer school. Good to know you’ve kept up an interest! He laughs. He is joking, but there is always an edge to it, honed and slicing.
Rae laughs, too. Igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic, she says.
Rae thinks: my mother and a box of rocks: is there a difference? One cost $3,000 to make that way. In the state of Indiana, you must be burned inside of a coffin. Let me do the math on the rocks. Is that by the pound? Ha!
Also, cremation costs more if you are fat. The is one of Rae’s favorite memories of the dour cremation society, decorated like an old lady’s parlor. A final kick at the end. Mourning the death of your poor, obese love, the one you pled with to lose weight, and in the end you’re stuck with the bloated bill and yet another uncomfortable conversation. The caskets she imagines as piano crates. These poor, dead fat people. Suddenly, Rae is as large as a continent, and she is swept over by seas of regret.
Sometimes Rae does not feel like a good person. She also thinks: The Neptune Society. Is there a tactful way of informing her father of this service? He could pre-arrange his post-death plans and she would never again have to pretend to care about what someone who is gone wants with something that is not quite real.
Yeah, Dad. I want the rocks.
What becomes of a body? Igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary? All of them, it is all of them. Sedimentary—this seems most logical, so close to the sedentary palliation of the hospital, but the igneous and the metamorphic—those, too. Fire and change. Sand, fire, and change. All those rocks. Bone chips and carbon ash. All the same.
Huh. I don’t know, honey. I know they’re around here somewhere. Maybe in a box?
Again with the boxes! Rae thinks.
I’ll keep an eye out. You need the shovel anytime soon? Thinking about an expedition? Ha, ha.
Okay. Thanks. I just called to see where some things were.
And she had, of course, and it didn’t matter to know where things that no longer were what they had been. Will she need a shovel? No. Possession of relics is not time travel so much as it is a sad archeology. And there is nothing more for which she cares to dig.
MEREDITH K. GRAY has an MFA from Vanderbilt University. She lives in Baltimore and teaches at the University of Maryland. Her work was recently featured in the new anthology The Best of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.