Laurie Saurborn

Salvage

​Less than halfway through the eulogy, Anna’s head started spinning. Closing one eye to steady her stomach and regain equilibrium, she focused on her father’s oak casket as an unwavering horizon. Immediately after the service she and Rebecca Jean walked out of the church. As they cut through the tall, wet grass, their high heels sank into the mud. Back inside the rental car, they drank more wine from blue plastic cups and watched the rain trail down the windows, one drop following the next as if by instinct. Her sister broke the silence. “I think the only thing you can do,” she said, “is to make an imaginary baby of your sadness.” Anna reclined her seat and let her eyes shut for a moment. Her damp blouse clung to her skin, raising gooseflesh along her pale arms. She nodded. “But then what?” Rebecca Jean drained her cup. “Then,” she said, “you put all your grief into the baby, rock it in your arms, and throw the damn thing over a fence.” That was as far as they got about the baby. A tap at the passenger side window and their mother’s face appeared, worried behind the rain.
Today her sister is on an airplane home to San Diego and Anna and Walsh are headed back to Boston. They might have stayed another night at her mother’s—Anna wanted this—but Walsh was determined to leave today. After Anna helped box some of her father’s clothes, they departed in the late afternoon, driving barely two hours north and just passing the state line before stopping at this hotel. Remembering her husband’s earlier, irritated and over-loud words at the car—“Damn it, Anna, hurry the hell up”—she takes another drink from one of the two bottles Rebecca Jean gave her this morning. Inhaling deeply, she feels the muscles between her ribs stretch. The intercostals: a word that sounds like an argument between sandbars. Walsh can have the room. She and the dog will sleep here.
School has started in most places by now, family vacations have ended, and the parking lot, a plateau recently built on rolling Virginia farmland, is nearly vacant. Sitting on the back bumper beneath the lifted trunk of the hatchback, Anna holds the wine bottle between her knees and laces her fingers together, bending her elbows out. Nearly furious with the motion, she rocks the grief baby until her hands break apart. Weightless, the fake baby could float off in the night sky, like a spark from a bonfire, but instead she imagines it tumbling onto the cooling asphalt with her sandals. There are pieces of cork in her teeth and she spits one out, somewhat inefficiently, toward the ground and probably on the baby. Under which lie remnants of rabbit warrens, crushed gophers and their caved-in tunnels, cow manure, abandoned gardens, rust on metal. Visible or not, everything built on top of something else.
Cicadas begin to rasp from the trees. The steady pulse of their music reminds Anna of the beeps and alarms of the intensive care unit. Reaching under her thin t-shirt, from beneath the band of her bra she pulls a business card. White stock with embossed blue print on one side. A phone number written in black ballpoint on the other. The ten digits formed the phone number of Dr. Manuel, the specialist who treated her father during his last two hospitalizations for lung disease. Her mother, whose eastern Carolina accent can make every letter of the alphabet sound five times longer than it is, pronounced the doctor’s name in three syllables, with an extra, dipping lilt at the end: Man you well-ell. Slipping the card between her left breast and its corresponding bra cup, she wiggles the phone out of her pocket and texts three words with no punctuation: How are you
Her palms—sticky with tears for several nights—now begin to sweat. Without a question mark at the end the words seem to move around, to float. It is not an inquiry or a statement, but a gauge. Rearrange How into Who. Last evening at the funeral reception, he took her aside. At first he gently cupped her elbow, but then his hand moved to her upper arm and Anna started shaking in her black shift dress. Dr. Manuel’s pale green eyes—the color of limestone, underwater—matched the diagonal stripes in his tie. Leaning in close to her ear he said, “I’m sorry, Annabeth,” and then pressed his card in her hand before turning to go. As he passed the punchbowl, his hip brushed the arm of her grandmother’s crystal ladle. It slid gently into the mixture of ginger ale, sherbet and gin. He used her whole name, the one she left behind when she met Walsh in college.
During a lunch of chicken salad and iced tea at her mother’s today, she tried to catch Walsh’s glance to make sure of the color of his eyes, the eyes that share a face with a mouth that once said, I do. But Walsh is increasingly uninterested in making eye contact. And his I do, as hers, was spoken nearly seven years ago. Brown. The swallows climb higher and plummet more steeply. Walsh’s eyes are brown. Walsh, who was not at the funeral because he scheduled a call with Japanese investors interested in expanding their holdings in the American video game market. Walsh, who when Anna last tried to kiss him while wearing a navy-blue negligee he bought her many Valentines’ past, barely looked away from his computer as he said, “I have a deadline. Put your clothes back on.”
Her legs hanging over the bumper, Anna circles her bare feet in one direction and then the other. Closing her eyes, she sees Styrofoam cups of ice chips. Watches herself feeding them to her father with a white plastic spoon from the cafeteria. Unstoppably, her ears fill with Walsh saying, “I don’t like hospitals.” His voice stressed a different word each time he repeated the sentence in the parking garage, in the elevator, and in the hallway outside her father’s room. Walsh spent the last day of her father’s life talking business on the phone and pacing the hospital patio, a small, barren square patients could look out on from their rooms and in the course of twelve hours hope to watch the sun change the angle of its slanted rays on the cement.
Anna tosses the drained bottle in the freshly mown weeds, expecting it to tumble over the steeply graded slope at the edge of the parking lot. But it balances on the lip, the light from the hotel marquee casting the car’s shadow