first published 1993
– Rockford Review, Vol XII, Editor’s Choice Best
– Genre Magazine, Vol I
One chilly November morning, with the help of
Mr. Poindexter, the undertaker, and two
assistants, Old Man Rainey rose out of his
coffin. The men placed Rainey gently in a high
bed surrounded on three sides by a modest forest
of flowers. Gradually the heavy scent, along
with the flowers that bore them, disappeared.
The thick purple curtains were pulled open
allowing in the unadulterated stab of yellow
Three days passed before the old man could raise
his eyelids. More days crept by before his
glassy, vacant stare could perceive more than
shadows; before his ears could distinguish
between the voices and the thunder beyond the
walls. Hours ticked away while long faces looked
down on his small, withered frame. Muffled sobs
mingled with the patter of rain rising off the
Most of the faces went unrecognized.
Great-grandchildren dressed as if for Easter
stood foolishly at his bedside, hesitant to move
closer, unsure what to do with their hands.
Their mothers and fathers were no less uneasy.
After a polite twenty to thirty minutes, they
would sneak away backwards, closing the door in
their faces. His jaw dropped open, his breathing
a dry steady wheeze, Old Man Rainey preferred to
sleep through their visits.
Sometimes, when Rainey, Jr. knelt at his
bedside, the old man's mouth would twitch. The
two faces would stare into each other, as if
each beheld a mirror—one gazing into his past,
the other into the future. The old man's eyes
would, at times, follow his son's movements.
Still, at other times his eyes remained vacant,
responding only to the sudden shift of shadows.
Mostly though, merely to raise his eyelids
required a weightlifter's effort. More often
than not, even before Rainey, Jr. had retrieved
his hat and tiptoed away backwards, the old man
would close his eyes, a dry deep-throated wheeze
announcing his retreat into sleep.
Regurgitating soup made Rainey stronger. Soups
and broths eventually changed his bone-white
complexion to a spotty brownish texture. More
soups and broths, mashed vegetables and baby
foods brought firmness to his stare. His green
eye pigment, which once seemed dispersed,
coalesced; forming bright green irises with a
pinhole pupil in each center. At times the face
burdened with sagging flesh, formed a vague
smile. Eventually, the neighbor, Mrs. Sims, or
someone else dressed in white, could prop Rainey
up, wedging him between pillows. From such a
position he could give back his own food, spit
up his own pills, and grasp confidently the hand
of whoever came to hold his.
With the years Rainey learned to walk, to walk
without aid of walls or canes; without the aid
of arms belonging to patronizing or impatient
voices. His white hair grew thicker and spanned
the back of his head. His complexion darkened.
He entered a hospital where his pacemaker was
removed. Another visit and he was rushed to a
golf course where he recovered from a near fatal
heart attack. From then on his heart remained
healthy; destined, as he knew, to remain so till
the very end.
Shortly before the heart attack, Rainey watched
his wife return from the grave. Two black men in
matching jumpsuits unearthed the coffin at the
foot of his wife's headstone. Family and friends
pulled back their tears as Reverend Leach took
back his eulogy and Solomon's psalms. Close
friends collected their flowers and wreaths as
the casket was raised, carried to a black
hearse, and taken away. At Poindexter's Funeral
Parlor more words were taken back, more tears
pulled in, more flowers gathered before Sarah
was finally home to be revitalized by
regurgitating soups, broths, baby food and
In the months that followed he watched her in
the garden. As winter moved into fall and then
on to summer, he watched her back
straighten—much like the carnations,
chrysanthemums and marigolds straightened their
backs and basked their multi-colored faces in
the healing rays of the sun, tall and defiant in
the face of buzzing backward-flying bees. He
watched as more often than not she rested her
cane on the low picket fence, hunching over each
bush, talking as if to small children and
puckering her pale lips as if receiving their
kisses. The months passed as he watched from the
patio; as her face, absorbing the sun,
eventually came to reflect it back; as her slow
repetitive speech gradually began to gain
Rainey's memory was like a crystal ball charting
his entire future. He knew it was only a matter
of time before he and Mrs. Sims would drive
Sarah to the hospital. There she would weaken,
nearly die, and, weakening further, recover.
Shortly afterward she would suffer her stroke
and become whole again.
He knew he would not be there to witness her
stroke. He would be enjoying his retirement
party. He would be beginning his long career:
starting as First National's ulcer-ridden
comptroller and winding up—or was it winding
down?—as a wet-behind-the-ears
jack-of-all-trades at his uncle's grocery store.
He saw it all: him seated at the head of a long
dark table wearing his gray hand-tailored
three-piece suit, his hands cupped respectfully
on the table surface. Department heads would
retract their guarded praises, disassemble their
sugar-coated memories while he wrapped and gave
back their gifts. He saw himself unthanking his
staff for the years they would subsequently
unserve under him. Virginia, his personal
secretary, would unkiss him removing the hot
pink lipstick he wore from home to tease Sarah.
He would untell jokes he would then unrehearse
for the next two days. And he would cram his
desk with papers, folders, photographs and
memorabilia he had earlier hauled out of
wastepaper baskets and attic shelves.
Then would come weeks boiling over with tension.
Profits would ever so slowly climb and the vice
president, unseeking a scapegoat, would withdraw
from forcing Rainey's retirement. There would be
board meetings begun with red angry faces and
department heads taking sides. Shouts, threats,
innuendos would be unhurled like knives, losing
their sharp edges as conversation fell on such
neutral subjects as the doughnuts and the new
non-dairy creamer for the coffee.
During those months Rainey would be on edge, a
voice inside urging him to quit. And why not? he
would think. Junior was a successful developer
tearing down towering office buildings while
massive amounts of money changed hands. His
daughters had had sons and daughters who in turn
had had sons and daughters all of whom shouted
and ran and would unspill jelly on his carpets
during the holidays. His favorite daughter,
Peggy, would have returned to him from her car
accident. And Nan's separation would dissolve
into seventeen years of sometimes happy
marriage. So why not quit?
But he knew he would stay. He would stay while
the vice president transferred elsewhere. He
would stay while several vice presidents
transferred, while numerous department heads
passed through the bank like consecutive breezes
on a windy day. He would stay while his gray
hairs grew brown and covered his entire head;
while Peg's alcoholic husband retracted his
suicide, took back the threats he hurled at Peg
and the children, secured his construction job
and gradually pulled his life back together.
Yes, Rainey would stay, stepping down a position
or two while he watched his children and
grandchildren grow younger and happier; watched
as his gurgling great-grandchildren, after
blissful childhoods, grow smaller, losing teeth,
eyesight, hair, until finally they climbed
securely inside their mothers' wombs.
He would stay. And one day he would again bury
his frustrations in Eudora's bosom. Even now, as
he watched Sarah in the garden, he relished the
memory of Eudora, her dark red fingernails
digging scars in his flesh. He could picture her
squirming below him; sweaty, crushed between
pillows, her face straining, her bitter lips
contorting as she grunted, groaned and ordered
him what to do next. He could smell the faint
whiff of brandy mingled with her breath mints.
What delicious moments those stolen afternoons
would bring. What heartache packaged in such
pleasure. Oh, there would be guilt, shame,
accusations. But what would it matter since all
sin was destined to be undone? Sarah would
someday forget his transgressions as he would
someday forget her melancholy, her headaches,
her born-again reluctance in the face of his
carnal needs. And there would come a time when
Sarah's figure, her breasts, her playful smile
and the seductive way she twirled her fingers
through her dark curly hair would push him again
over the floodgates of desire.
On weekends he would tumble with young Junior in
piles of raked leaves. Warm smells would fill
the kitchen. Little Peg would be helping Mommy
unbake cookies while baby Nan lie in her crib
gurgling or dreaming.
And in the world: Japan would have taken back
its bombs and the U.S. its bomb. The boys would
be home, his brother with them. Hitler's
atrocities would once more be carefully guarded
secrets eventually to be undone altogether.
Stalin and Roosevelt would again be his
untainted heroes. And the Great Depression? …
that time when Sarah was a skinny idealistic
schoolgirl who hung onto his every word; when he
was a young man, one of the few lucky enough to
have a good job; Sarah sneaking away after dark
to eat pears and peaches with him in the pine
grove near Echo Lake. Sarah had made those rough
times—including his mother's nervous
breakdown—bearable. And she would do so again.
Only this time his mother would grow happier
instead of sadder.
And one day, one day so far in the future it
seemed almost unimaginable, his father would
return. The nose would be bleeding as he would
be dragged home in the middle of the night,
dragged by plain clothes city officials. He
would be returning from some cell where he would
have revived from the “suicidal” wounds to his
back and head; those wounds forever gone.
Eventually the Marxist slogans his father used
to hurl at the silent walls, and the leaflets
heralding the rising proletariat—those would
vanish. Last to leave would be the angry hunger
in his father's tense eyes.
His mother's tired, cynical eyes would grow
bright and smile. He would once again hear her
scream and giggle as his father chased her
around their cramped apartment while he, seated
in the middle of the room, applauded in innocent
glee. His father would take to juggling apples
while his mother, lost in her tasks, would hum
in that sweet way she used to when she thought
no one was listening.
As to death, what of it? Death was no longer to
be feared. Nothing died. And why fear birth? Why
fear birth when it trailed such a blissful
childhood; when a hugging, nose-rubbing,
cheerful mom and a tender, toe-tickling dad were
always near to serve your simple, innocent
needs—even down to those last moments when you
crawl inside your mom's belly and are rocked
gently into oblivion.
As Rainey sat on the back patio watching Sarah
in the garden, their garden, he watched the
autumn leaves trickle upward and attach
themselves to the trees. He watched airplanes
fly backward and imagined how they would one day
become raw metals buried in the earth. He stared
into the pale blue sky possessed of a
peacefulness that must have always been there.
He watched Sarah move serenely from flower to
shrub to apple tree and back to flower, much
like a queen paying homage to each of her many
A cat, crouched low in the grass, watched the
acrobatics of a low-hanging squirrel; the
squirrel no doubt aware its antics were being
closely scrutinized. The first time Rainey had
encountered this moment—during his journey
towards death—he had read it wrong. He had
thought the cat desired a kill. Now he
understood. It was a game. The squirrel teased,
the cat chased, the squirrel got away. The cat
tried harder next time. It was a game cat and
squirrel devised to amuse themselves. To think
Rainey had had to see things backward to finally
see them correctly.
Rainey removed the hat shading his vision and
looked towards the sun. In a few hours it would
set in the east. Like a silent bomb it would
explode in crimsons and purples, a golden yellow
reflecting off the cloud's underbelly. One day,
Rainey thought, a skinny sad-eyed man would
climb down from his cross and carry it away to
be made into a tree. After talking backwards for
three years, the wise bearded fool would
disappear into the wilderness, and rightly so.
Rainey smiled at the thought. Removing a
wineglass from his lips, he leaned back and
smiled into the warm reassuring sunglow.
Overhead a flock of geese had formed a V, no
doubt returning from some long journey in search
of a warmer climate.