Frowny Face (Shannon Burns)

Verity La Lies to Live By

death4(Edited by Omar J. Sakr)

Mother died today. I got an email. It said, mother passed away funeral tomorrow yours.
             I thought: Mine?
Am I dead too?
             So here I sit, in my office, reading emails, having thoughts like: Am I dead too? On the very day mother died.
             Having forgotten to mention the frowny face.
             mother passed away : (
             Is what my sister wrote.
             I try to call her at home. This, I think, is not for email. This, I think, is not for twitter. My mobile gives a loud beep (mother passed frowny face). I dial and a stranger answers the phone.
             Who’s this? I ask.
             You tell me, says a sad voice.
             Then the dial tone. So I try again.
             Who’s this? the answerer asks.
             Your brother, I say.
             Oh, she says, I just emailed you.
             Who are you speaking to? a voice asks gruffly.
             No one, she says.
             When did she die? I ask.
             This morning, she says, it was in the email.
             Oh, I say, then how did she die?
             The usual way, she says, I’ve gotta go.
             And the dial tone again.
             The usual way.
I draft an email, automatically: My mother just died, frowny face.
But who to send it to? Not her, surely, she already knows. Nor anyone in the office, since they would only come over. You should go home, they’d say, to be with your sister.
             I type mother’s name then press ‘send’ and wait to see what happens.
             It comes back.
             Your message failed, it says. There is no such address. And underneath: My mother just died : (
             My mother is no such address. My mother is oblivion, in the way of addresses. I press send again, and again, with the same result. I write: When a cuddly little critter awoke one morning from troubled dreams, it found itself transformed into a monstrous sentence, and cc it to everyone.
             Suddenly, a reply:
             This is your sister. Stop playing games. Respect the dead.
Is there something wrong? asks the woman in the next cubicle. She’s leaning back on her chair.
             All okay, I say. Why do you ask?
             The head disappears and her mouse starts clicking and grinding. I check the football news, look at Facebook, update my status. Orphan, I write, then switch off the computer and slip into my jacket.
When I get to the house I find my sister alone. She’s sitting on the couch watching television. She stands as I enter. Oh, it’s you, she says. She’s wearing grey tracksuit pants and a loose-fitting t-shirt.
             Who’s You? I say, but she isn’t in the mood. Her eyes are swollen and the house stinks of garlic.
             I made lunch, she says.
             ‘Is that garlic?’
             I made pasta, she says, and I’ve spilt a jar.
             She points to the corner of the kitchen, where shards of glass and a lump of pulped garlic remain on the floor.
             ‘I’ll clean it up.’
             Okay, she replies, in a toneless voice.
             Oprah’s on but the sound is low. I get the dustbin and broom from the laundry without looking in the bedroom. I walk right past, keeping my head straight.
             I brush the garlic and broken glass into the dustbin then empty it into the larger bin outside. I steal a glance at my sister. She’s lying prone on the couch with her eyes closed. She’s not wearing any underwear.
Mother’s on the bed and looks asleep but her chest doesn’t rise. She seems
fine – some might say healthy. She’s in the middle of one of those power naps she takes every time she has something important to attend, someone to impress. She sports a full load of make-up and a sleek black dress, one she often wore to formal, classy dinners or to go dancing. She’s even wearing stockings.
             The only thing missing is her hair.
             Her head is a perfect, shining dome. It’s as though she’d been polishing it all these months. Her ears stick out like peacock feathers. Heavy, long earrings stretch the lobes of her ears down as far as the pillow.
             I sit and watch her for a while. The light from the window shines on her forehead. I can’t stop staring. My eyes start to water. As her head becomes liquid, I give a loud, slow yawn. If my mother were alive, she’d yawn back.
‘I’m off now,’ says my sister.
             Where to?
             I have things to do.
             What about lunch?
             You made lunch.
             Yes, that’s right.
             Shall we eat lunch then?
             No, I’m off now.
             But why make lunch and then leave?
             I’m not hungry.
             But it’s lunch time.
             I don’t eat lunch.
             Since when?
             Since Wednesday.
             Since two days ago?
             Why on earth?
             I’m on a diet.
             You’re starving yourself.
             I eat in the morning.
             Only in the morning?
             Just in the morning.
             Did you eat this morning?
             I wasn’t hungry.
             So have some lunch.
             I don’t eat lunch.
             Since Wednesday, you say?
             For two days.
             How long will you starve yourself?
             I don’t starve at all, I eat in the morning.
             Except this morning.
             This morning’s an exception.
             One morning out of three?
             That’s right.
             Why didn’t you eat?
             Mother died.
             So you didn’t have time.
             That’s right.
             Were you hungry when she died?
             Yes, very.
             But you never ate.
             So why not eat now, to make up for it?
             That would be cheating.
             Is this a game then?
             It’s a serious diet.
             It isn’t cheating, surely, to eat lunch if you miss breakfast.
             Yes it is.
             Are there no exceptions?
             None whatever.
             Not even when your mother dies?
             It doesn’t say.
             By “it” you mean what?
             I mean the instructions.
             They don’t mention mother?
             No they don’t.
             That’s something of an oversight.
             How do you mean?
             How could they have missed her?
             I don’t quite follow.
             If mother was going to die, why didn’t they mention it?
             I guess they hadn’t heard.
             Yet you follow their instructions.
             I see no reason not to.
             You let them tell you what to do.
             How else would it work?
             But they don’t know the future.
             No-one does.
             Then how can they give instructions?
             You’re not making sense.
             They give instructions for the future.
             In what way?
             Don’t they tell you how to behave?
             That’s right.
             For tonight and tomorrow and the next day.
             That’s right.
             Knowing nothing about what will happen tonight and tomorrow and the next day.
             They have a good idea.
             Not about mother.
             How could they?
             But this is just the third day, don’t you see?
             See what?
             That on the third day mother died.
             So what?
             And it wasn’t accounted for.
             They didn’t see it coming.
             It was a mammoth oversight, wouldn’t you say?
             I don’t think I would.
             Is the death of our mother not a major event?
             Yes but…
             But they knew nothing about it, they didn’t even account for the prospect of her death, you say.
             Not the slightest reference?
             Not a footnote?
             Nothing like that.
             Is it perhaps in the small print?
             There is no small print.
             Nothing you’ve noticed?
             Nothing at all.
             So you’re saying, if I understand correctly, that you follow instructions composed by some entity that’s already failed, only three days in, to account for your mother’s death?
             That’s right.
             Isn’t that foolish?
             I’d say you’re a fool.
             You’re the hungry one.
             I’m leaving.
             Let’s have lunch.
             I have things to do.
             At least clean up those tissues first.
             We can’t have tissues lying everywhere.
             She’s only been dead a few hours.
             I know.
             Come here for a second. We’ll be okay. Stop crying.
             I’m not crying.
             Get changed at least.
             I’ve really gotta go.
             But I can see your nipples.
There’s a scrap of paper on the kitchen bench, with details written on it for a funeral home. I call the number and talk to someone called Susan. She says she’s very sorry for my loss and puts me on hold. The jingle greets me with a surge of pleasure: Believe it or not I’m walking on air, I never thought I could feel so free-ee-ee. I’m singing loudly as a man called Mark offers his condolences. He asks what sort of ceremony I’m after. I explain our financial situation. He tells me he can provide an intimate cremation.
             How soon can we do it?
             That depends on you.
             Can we do it on the weekend?
             You’re not expecting anyone from interstate or overseas?
             Just wait a moment.
             I hear clicks on a keyboard as he checks the schedule.
             Our last session is free. Will five o’clock suit everyone? It’s a Saturday, in case you’ve forgotten.
             Yes Saturday at five will be excellent. How long will the ceremony take?
             Between forty and fifty minutes.
             Perfect. When will you come to collect her?
             We can collect the avatar this afternoon, if you like.
             The what?
             The cadaver. It means corpse.
             Yes, I thought you said something else. This afternoon is excellent.
             What sort of condition is the body in?
             It’s excellent, I suppose, apart from the obvious.
             Of course. Then there should be no problem. Give me your address and our men will come around with the van. Did your mother belong to a religion?
             Not seriously.
             So you’d prefer a secular ceremony.
             Yes, she would.
             No problem. Will there be a eulogy?
             I’ll say a few words.
             No one else?
             Perhaps my sister. We’ll keep it short.
             Understood. That’s all I need for now. Is there anything else I can help you with?
             Yes. Have you spoken to anyone about my mother recently?
             I’m sorry? About your mother? I don’t know what you mean.
             It’s just that I found the name and telephone number of your business on her kitchen bench and I don’t know how it got there.
             Perhaps someone left it there.
             Of course.
             It wasn’t me.
             No, I wasn’t suggesting it was you. I thought you might have spoken to somebody already. Did my sister telephone earlier?
             I don’t think so.
             Perhaps even my mother?
             You’re wondering whether your mother called to make arrangements for her funeral before she died?
             Yes, perhaps a matter of minutes before she died.
             She may have made enquiries. But it seems unlikely… We don’t have her details on file.
             Okay, that’s fine. I was just curious.
             Will that be all?
             I’ll see you tomorrow evening.
             I look forward to it.
             As I hang up the telephone I recall my sister’s email: ‘funeral tomorrow’.
             Why so soon? Had she already booked a funeral with another company? In a panic, I call her mobile but it rings out.
I’d rather not be at the apartment when they come to collect mother, so I leave a note on the door and go out for a walk. The note reads: An urgent matter came up, mother’s body is inside, please help yourselves to the pasta in the oven if you’re hungry. I couldn’t eat pasta now anyway. I have a nasty feeling that the scent of garlic will forever invoke my mother’s corpse.
             I walk purposefully down the stairs. I can smell the beach from here, it’s a fine day, why not walk on the shore with my shoes off for a while? Mother can wait. After all, she’s not going anywhere. I order a coffee and a toasted sandwich at the café on the Esplanade and watch the pale waves foam onto the sand. There are at least fifty beachgoers in my line of vision, facing the beach and following the coastline at a rightward angle.
             I close my eyes and imagine three funeral workers bustling around in my parent’s house, knocking over ornaments as they try to manoeuvre her body out of the front doorway. A sudden thought: What if two funerals have been booked, and both companies are at the house right now, fighting over the corpse? I envision a slapstick spaghetti food fight in my parents’ kitchen.
             Is everything okay sir? asks one of the café employees. I realise I’ve been laughing loudly.
             A woman on the beach chastises a small boy for urinating on the sand near her towel. A waitress hands me a tissue and smiles. I finish my coffee and decide to head back home. I don’t feel like walking on the beach any more. The spectacle of a man in a shirt and tie and black slacks trekking along the shoreline with shoes in his hands would scream BREAKDOWN. As I pay the bill the girl at the counter says, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
             ‘Excuse me?’ I say.
             She pokes a long, red fingernail under my nose, to illustrate her point. ‘There are crumbs in your beard.’
             The phone buzzes loudly as I leave the café. My sister’s calling from another universe.
Shannon Burns is an Adelaide-based writer, reviewer/critic and sometimes-academic. He has written for Australian Book Review, Sydney Review of Books and Music & Literature. He is a current ABR Patrons Fellow and a member of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. He won the 2009 Adelaide Review Prize for Short Fiction and has published short fiction in various places, including Wet Ink, Etchings, Mascara Literary Review and Overland. His long profile of Gerald Murnane appears in the August 2015 edition of the Australian Book Review.