Things to Do with a Body
international fiction special feature
Things to Do with a Body
Dr. Doris Mott’s diaper needs changing. Letizia can smell the too-human funk when she comes in, heavy plastic bags sunk into her forearms and drizzle beading her hair. She doesn’t like to leave Doris alone, but they were out of sweet potatoes and milk. Also, dark chocolate, the kind with almonds and chunks of salt buried in it. You can parcel out time with chocolate.
Doris makes her query sound, and Letizia hoists the groceries so the elderly scientist can see. “Sweet potatoes, Mami.” She will roast them for dinner with the chicken, but first, diapers.
Adult diapers come in briefs, but the ones that tape on the sides are easier. Letizia lifts Doris to slide a towel underneath, heaving like her friend still weighs something. Doris is a cardboard cutout of her former self, the hardy geologist who spent her life reading ice core samples, who liked to remind Letizia that No was a complete sentence. You don’t need to keep explaining yourself to Percy, kiddo, Doris would say, as divorce became the inevitable outcome of Letizia’s brief but turbulent union with her son. My son can’t hear you unless you’re saying something he wants to hear. Save your goddamned breath.
Now Doris is a bright-eyed hull, non-verbal, light as an empty suitcase, and still Percy is afraid of her. Maybe that’s why, after Percy and Letizia finished arbitration (a word that sounded like a grove where you might have a picnic, not fistfuls of hair and toppled furniture and graphic accusations and, finally, a neighbor’s well-intentioned call to the police that bore out in a long, bothersome inquiry of her green-card status), Letizia accepted his mother’s offer of a spare bedroom in her big house. They had always liked each other. Letizia, who had managed emigration from Bolivia to the United States in a single burst of initiative in her twenties and then run out of ideas; and Doris, who had put herself through school as a roofer and metal worker and who shook her head at her own children’s lack of grit. In Letizia, she thought she had found a kindred spirit. Doris executed ungenerous but not inaccurate impressions of Percy and Hazel and Lon, lampooning their complaints—first-world problems, Doris called them, even pettier in comparison to her assumptions about Letizia’s childhood, and Letizia laughed, too flattered to correct her.
Ten years skipped past, and still, Letizia was living with her ex-husband’s mother. Strokes two and three hatcheted off control of Doris’s limbs and speech, and Hazel offered money for a plane ticket home, for a year’s rent on an apartment back in La Paz, but Letizia said no. Who would take care of Doris if she left?
In La Paz, property taxes are assessed in part by the number of windows, so the apartment she once shared with her cousin was bunker-dark, pitching forward on the sloping road from El Alto like a threat. Here in Connecticut, Doris’s ranch-style home is relentless with sunlight, planted resolutely on a lawn so flat and square her neighbor rides over on his mower to trim the grass for the easy geometric pleasure of it. I’m leaving this place to you when I go,Doris told her, ignoring the dark looks Percy and Lon and Hazel gave them.
We’ll see about that, Hazel had said. It was the same thing Percy said, when Doris reiterated that she didn’t want a wake or a funeral mass. It’s a family decision.
Letizia removes Doris’s pajama bottoms. Bags them. You get used to changing adult diapers faster than you think you would, swiping folds of skin and issuing a stream of one-sided conversation to ward off the awkwardness of necessary intimacy.
“We’re out of wipes. I don’t want you getting another rash. Relax a minute.” Gently, Letizia folds the towel to cover her, double-timing it down to the pantry in the basement. She loves the basement and its orderly expanse of labeled boxes. The ones at the bottom are the kind you find in labs and offices, patterned to look like wood grain, full of papers about sea floor spreading. On top, dishes divided by holiday, an entire bank of buckling cardboard devoted to Christmas, to Easter, to Halloween. Baby clothes, maternity dresses, toys that Percy and Lon and Hazel used to play with. Lon’s children are not interested in these toys. At two and four, they already prefer cell phones, toddle around collecting them, gumming the corners.
Letizia breathes in the smell of the boxes. Stands there. Chews on the dry skin around her thumbnail, appreciating that hum of the water heater, looking at the labels. The next holiday: July 4. Years ago, Doris had drawn a constellation of stars in red Sharpie.
She finds the wipes and takes the stairs two at a time, thinking about sweet potatoes. She could cook them in the microwave before she blends them with some chicken for Doris.
Letizia hits the living room and pulls up short. She’s lived with Doris for so long that she knows how the air stirs around her, knows how the intelligent eyes move in their dark sockets.
The eyes don’t turn. The air has gone still. And Letizia, who has lived with Doris for a decade, who has cared for her in her undignified decline and who continued to quote her long after she lost all powers of speech, suddenly, terribly, has the house to herself.
In the movies, people always know what to do with the body of someone they love. There’s the discovery, and suddenly a gurney, the emphatic slam of ambulance doors. Experts take over.
Letizia is not sure what the phone call is, exactly, that sets this in motion. Anyone official will demand to know who she is, and she isn’t anyone. She isn’t the daughter-in-law anymore. She isn’t the nurse, or the home health aide. One of those paid staffers would know who to call, would have called already, would be inventorying the smaller valuables.
Doris introduced Letizia to people as her friend. When the Belgian mineralogist raised an eyebrow, Doris shook her head. Not like that. But sometimes they both fell asleep in Doris’s bed reading books. Back when she still could read, Doris liked mysteries, although people were forever giving her those bestselling books that explain science to people who do not know about science. These she passed along to Letizia, who read them like homework.
Who should she call first? Percy? Last time, she’d been drinking, and words, serrated ones, had surprised them both with their bitterness. About her ex-husband’s new wife, a diminutive woman named Fi that Letizia could have disappeared up her sleeve like a magic trick. The nuptials had been conducted at city hall, sidestepping social convention in the name of the potential challenges of managing Doris’s wheelchair.
The next big family get-together will probably be for her, Percy said. After she goes.
She doesn’t want a funeral,Letizia protested. She doesn’t want one of those wakes where people look at her and say she looks good. No one looks good when they’re dead.
Percy lifted his broad shoulders in a helpless shrug. Lon and Hazel are both going to want a viewing. Lon’s definitely going to insist on a mass. Hazel’s been working on the eulogy for years.
Letizia and Percy had finalized their divorce ten years ago, and still they came crashing together, inevitable as continents with matching shorelines. The last time they had sex was last Thanksgiving, just after he proposed to Fi, and they collided in the basement against the boxes marked July 4th, those hand-drawn stars behind his head like a cartoon of an injury, Letizia’s hand pressed over his mouth so Doris wouldn’t hear.
The longer you keep something quiet, the harder it is to let it out. She sits with Doris’s body and holds her friend’s hand, the fingers cooling now but still pliant, bargaining for one more minute, and then for one minute more. Once she makes the call, the house will fill with people. She was like a mother to me, Letizia is already telling these people, the ones who would act like Letizia was a maid, a roommate. She will sit in the second row at the memorial, or maybe the third, if a lot of geologists come.
Doris wanted her ashes scattered along the Ramapo fault line, the one closest to New York. Those plates hadn’t slipped in decades, Doris said. They were long overdue to discharge a life-altering shudder.
Letizia should probably call Hazel, who’s been asking for ten years if Letizia has found a job yet, and how much longer she’s planning to stay. To Hazel, Letizia is a malingering guest at a party, an intruder trying to graft herself onto their family. Of the three siblings, Hazel is the one who would ask the hardest questions, even if she had to heave them out through showy bursts of sobbing.
Letizia could call Lon. On the phone, Lon always goes quiet for such long periods that you’re prompted to say Hello? Hello? Making sure you still had the connection. If she calls Lon first, he will retreat into silence, and she doesn’t know if she has the resources to let that silence stand, not to fill it with chatter about sweet potatoes and hygienic wipes that will, under the pressure of Lon’s continued refusal to speak, slump into a helpless acknowledgment of the things he said last Christmas.
That left Percy. Calling him makes the most sense. He’s the reason she’s here, after all, the one who said of their failed marriage, I might have done things differently had I known you were never leaving, and said it not with bitterness, but with a wondering tone of regret.
Everyone knows that after you find the body, you’re supposed to make phone calls; but being the only one who knows Doris is gone makes it feel subject to revision. No one else’s reactions have left tracks across it. I should be crying, she thinks, but it’s too big to feel. Shelooks at Doris under the blanket, touches her cooling feet.
First the body goes hard, and then it softens again, something Letizia’s mother had told her. Her mother’s hands always smelled like formaldehyde. She liked to say that the body was a clock. Letizia is running out of time; she’s supposed to call 911 before the limbs stiffen but it feels like she’s turning Doris in for the terrible crime of no longer being alive. What are you doing here, the police will ask Letizia, meaning Doris’s house, and the United States. They will want to know why Letizia finished cleaning and dressing the geologist after she found her dead, unable to bear leaving her bottomless. Isn’t there something about not touching the body until the authorities arrive? The police will refer to Doris as the deceased, and ask if Letizia needs a translator. They will overenunciate: Do you understand?
She understands. She understands that the geologist is not here to protect her. Hazel is a lawyer; she’s patient the way people who are good with words are patient. In Doris’s impression of her daughter, Hazel laces her fingers behind her head and leans back, watching.
Letizia tucks the blanket around Doris’s body. Uncovers her face. Covers it again. “What do you want me to do, Mami?” Her eyes so dry they could crack like the salt flats of the salar. The shapes of the geologist’s nose and brow ridge beneath the blanket are unbearable, and she pulls the blanket down to Doris’s chin. The eyelids are purple. Letizia touches her cheek and brushes away a bit of lint which had stuck to Doris’s lower lip. My mother kisses you more than she kisses any of us, Lon had said. Of Doris’s three children, he was the one who actually hated her, hated in the way you hate someone who has stolen from you and gotten away with it.
She thinks you all had it too easy, Letizia told him. She was the same age as Lon, their birthdays uncomfortably adjacent in the first week of July. While she and Percy were married, they were forced to share a cake and blow out the candles together. But he seemed so much younger, his thinning hair like the wisps combed over a baby’s fontanel. You’ve never had to do anything hard, she said. She wasn’t as drunk as she was pretending to be.
My mother loves you more than her own children, Lon said, and we don’t even get why. They were going out to the backyard to set off fireworks at midnight, as she had on Christmas Eve in La Paz, and Hazel predicted, accurately, that the neighbors would call the police. Doris, wrapped in blankets in her wheelchair, gave her children a volcanic stare.
My mother wouldn’t let anyone else set off fucking fireworks in the yard, Lon said, covering the ears of one of his wet-lipped children against the word fucking.
“Who do you want me to call, Doris?” Letizia asks the dead geologist. When she covers her again, steely hair escapes the blanket’s margin. She smooths those down. Listens to the sounds of the house, the refrigerator’s compressor, the living room light ticking through its timer. She is hungry. At wakes in Bolivia, everyone gathers to eat a final meal beside the body. Letizia goes into the kitchen and returns with the chocolate bar and sits on the scuffed arm of the couch and eats, profligately alive, heart jostling for space in her chest.
After she has swallowed the last square of chocolate and licked the paper, she puts it in her pocket. Then she takes the blanket off Doris. The geologist is in yoga pants and a T-shirt that reads GEOLOGISTS MAKE THE BEDROCK that Letizia had purchased for Doris’s seventieth birthday. Her clothes have a musty smell. There’s a laundry basket of neatly folded garments on the rug and Letizia selects a clean pair of pants and a different T-shirt (HAVE A GNEISS DAY, which prompted eye rolls from all three of Doris’s children) and she undresses her friend.
Rigor mortis sets in first in the eyelids, the jaw, and the neck. Letizia knows. Her mother was an embalmer, running formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde and methanol through the circulatory system, removing the contents of the stomach. She was distant as a mother, but other people trusted her with the remains of their relatives. She was always leaving in the evenings for some velorio, preparing food for a funeral, too distracted by the grief of their neighbors to be a reliable source of help with homework.
When Letizia sits her up, Doris’s neck has frozen in an angle of quizzical contemplation, like she’s trying to remember something. The rest of her body is still flaccid, the skin too big somehow, a shroud, rather than a fitted sheet. Cold. Dark blotches bloom like storm clouds.
In La Paz, they took funeral hikes to the Choqueyapu River, where families washed the clothes of the deceased in the river, picnicking while they dried, and then burned the clothes in a bonfire. Nobody did this for Letizia’s mother, although her cousin held the wake in her dark apartment, chairs arranged around the body in a circle. Letizia served food to strangers who chewed without speaking, offered coca leaves into the night. No one spoke. No one asked Letizia how life was in America; and she was glad, uncertain of how she would have answered. Then they took a long, slow ride to the cemetery, where the casket was cemented into an arranged spot. After ten years, her mother’s body would be exhumed and cremated, to make room for other people, waiting for their turn in the plot.
Doris is dressed in clean clothes, but they don’t look right, somehow. She looks like a window display. Her children will want her wearing some horrible blouse for the funeral, will pay someone to apply the cosmetics and glue the eyes and lips shut before they file up to the podium to profess their love, to talk about Doris in a way that will imply she neglected them.
Letizia takes the garden clippers outside. The sun has dropped now and the neighbor’s sprinklers are sending out noisy arcs. Doris always complained about how much water they waste. Even after the strokes stole her ability to complain, Letizia could see it in her face. Now, without Doris, the water doesn’t matter. Let the neighbors empty the reservoirs, or let the grass go thirsty beneath the tinder of their homes. Who cares?
It’s too early in the year for sunflowers, but the rhododendrons are explosively in bloom, and Letizia hacks through their woody stems, returning with her arms full of fuchsia. She arranges flowers in a circle around the couch, aware that she is making it worse for when the authorities arrive, but unable to stop.
Letizia knows she needs to make a phone call, but first, she might as well do a load of laundry. One last chance for her clothes to circle with Doris’s. While they finish drying, she can decide whom to call.
Living here as long as she has, Letizia has her own cardboard boxes in the basement, labeled in Doris’s spiky hand. In the photos of ice cores Doris had collected in Greenland, the colors of the ice change from year to year, depending on variations in climate and temperature. You can see from the layers when the hard times had been. Letizia likes to look at her layer of boxes.
“I don’t want to call Hazel.” Her voice too big in the stillness. “You know how competitive she is about everything. Even crying.” She arranges Doris’s hands. Not folded over her stomach like they would be in a coffin, but at her sides, at attention, like she’s waiting to be given an award. “I don’t know why I’m not crying. Sorry about that.” The police would wonder about that, too. Letizia’s not a big crier; her mother said that even as a baby, she was disturbingly quiet. Doris said she was just no-nonsense, and then amended that to some-nonsense. Letizia suspected she knew more about what had gone down in the basement with Percy than she let on.
It goes full dark, and the timer flips the living room light to ON, and Letizia takes out her phone. Wipes the fingerprints off of it. When she opens a text box for Percy, she can see the last text that she sent him (I wish I didn’t say those things, I didn’t mean it, your friendship is important to me, I know you and your wife will be very happy),months ago now, and the fact that he never responded makes her so ashamed that she can’t type another message to him, especially not one that says his mother is dead.
Hazel then. All her texts with Hazel are exactly one-word long. Hazel is the family problem-solver. Keeps a roll of duct tape in her purse. The emotional bellwether for her brothers. Waits for you to open your mouth to begin speaking. Doris always said she was a hell of a litigator.
This is not a one-word situation, although Gone would probably do.
From the basement, she carries up the Sharpie-starred box marked July 4th. It is, after all, the next holiday they would have celebrated together, and all the leftover fireworks are in there. Doris never gave them warnings about missing eyes or fingers, the kind of mother who trusted you to look after your own body parts without prompting.
The fireworks are in there, and the American flags, and some kind of decorative bunting so old the red-white-and-blue colors have all gone off: a bruised maroon, yellow, and purple instead.
The fireworks are old. Duds, probably, Lon said last Christmas. Letizia thought the word dud sounded like the sound your heart makes slamming against the cage of your chest. After she had lit the fuses, he had backed off and crouched down beside his mother’s wheelchair like he wanted to talk to her, using her blanketed form for cover.
Sky on Fire, the boxes read. Great American. Some fireworks are named after American presidents, the ones that Americans like to remember, Roosevelt, Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln. Something called repeaters are in the box, and these are the ones that she wants. They will send up flares for Percy, for Lon, for Hazel. Come. Help. It is your turn to help.
There are so many windows in this house. A whole house of windows. In La Paz, you would have been taxed to death. Anyone walking by would peer in, to see what you were up to.
Doris liked to say the history of earth is one of very, very slow cataclysms. Maybe she was right. Things happen slow, until they happen fast. Like the lighting of the fuses. What happens when you light all of the fireworks atop the kindling of neatly folded laundry?
She is not sure, but she knows that people will come. Maybe the house will catch fire, and that will be OK too. If it was up to Doris, she would have fallen through a rift and vanished, not had her children stuff her in a box, hands folded, lips painted and sewn shut.
In the sixties, Doris’s core samples from the ocean floor proved that new crust was continually being manufactured at various deep-sea vents. The ground was not as stable as it seemed. No one wanted to believe it; plate tectonics wasn’t a thing yet, everyone blissfully unaware that the continents were being drawn back together.
Someday, Doris would tell her, the Atlantic will outgrow the Pacific. California will sail off on its own. Northern Africa will pinch out the goddamned Mediterranean. She looked satisfied.Doris was a believer in the power of vigorous change. Even after her first stroke, she never let up about the idea of Letizia moving someplace new and exciting, maybe changing her name. She said she was willing Letizia the house with the codicil that she sell it before Hazel could talk a judge around.
You can find evidence in the rocks that the magnetic poles reverse themselves from time to time, Doris had said, proof that the earth had a sense of humor, and didn’t appreciate reluctance to change.
Her phone buzzes. It might be Hazel, sensing something amiss, or it might be some other alert, one of those mass-produced warnings of emergency.
“No,” Letizia says. You don’t relinquish someone you love with a phone call. You borrow rituals, and where there are none, you invent your own. There’s a barbecue lighter in the kitchen drawer from back when Percy and Hazel and Lon all used to come over; and when Letizia flicks the safety off, she can hear the way the steaks used to sound on the grill, can hear Doris tease her children for their ineptitude with open fire. Doris’s freshly laundered clothes, still damp at the seams, don’t want to catch. The smell they give off as they smolder is the smell of home.
Letizia does not hurry, not even with the first incendiary shrieks and crackles and white smoke and black fires behind her. “Fireworks,” she says to her friend, by way of explanation.
Fire does indeed work, kiddo. Someone will come and have a look through the windows. You get a move on, now.
She doesn’t need to watch the seams of her house open. She does not watch flares of red and purple head for the drapes and the carpeting. She is too busy locking the door behind her. Are those sirens in the distance? Or just the sound of fire working? Beneath Letizia’s skin, her many bones move like the gears of a watch. She still has some time. She just doesn’t know how much.