Everyone dies twice. Once when you stop breathing, and again when someone breathes your name for the last time.
It is hard to remember once you are dead. Violet learns this while watching Beth from behind the unlit standing lamp in the farthest corner of Beth’s soft marigold bedroom. For the half hour that she has stood here in her canary nightdress and fuzzy periwinkle slipper socks, Violet has learned a lot of things. She has learned that she is Beth’s mother, that her name is Violet, and that she is dead.
Beth has also just learned that Violet is dead. She sits on her bed with her knees tucked into her chest and the heels of her palms pressed into her eyes. When she removes her hands, Violet sees water pooling around and over the lines of her eyes and palms. Her eyelids are amaranth from rubbing, and Violet notices that the shade goes well with the soft marigold. That is an odd thing to notice at such a time, Violet thinks. Beth is wearing sandals on the bed, a fact that causes Violet to click her tongue out of habit, but Beth cannot hear her because Violet is…is what? An angel? Violet does not feel particularly angelic. It is true that Violet is here while her body is not, but angels are supposed to watch their families from heaven, and Violet is watching Beth from behind a standing lamp. A ghost, then, she supposes. She must be a ghost.
Ever since Violet woke up in the corner of Beth’s bedroom, she has not been able to remember a single thing about herself except what Beth remembers about her. Violet experiences Beth’s thoughts and recollections as if watching a movie in her mind’s eye, complete with audio and visuals.
Beth’s remembering began by imagining how it happened. A choking gasp from the black, Violet’s peach-painted nails clawing at her chest, paisley duvet twisted by spasms. But no, the examiner said she looked peaceful. Isn’t that what examiners always say? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.
In fact, it was peaceful. Violet felt no pain but did dream that a pug was pulling on her left collarbone. If Violet had memories of her life, that irritating pug would be her last. Violet does not like how she looks in Beth’s imagining. She looks dead, and it is very unflattering. Though she feels Beth’s pain, she does not feel an urge to wrap her arms around her and let Beth’s tears soak the skin of her shoulder. She notes that it is odd that she feels no such urge, but she is unbothered by this. Violet feels light and pleasantly detached, able to take each moment as it comes, something she could never manage while alive.
Beth wants to be pragmatic like her mom was when Charlie passed. She wants to take charge and make arrangements, to act the part of Atlas, lifting the firmament of tragedy enough to allow the grieving space to breathe. But she can’t. Not now. It was too sudden. Her mom was trim and looked ten years younger than sixty-seven. High cholesterol was all. And now this. Taking charge can wait.
Violet feels herself as Beth remembers her. Sure, strong, surely surer and stronger than she’d ever really been. Nevertheless, Violet stands straighter and her gray hair poofs up above the lampshade. When Beth’s thoughts pass over Charlie—a snapshot of a young man holding a cigarette delicately between his middle and ring fingers, another of the same man asleep in a coffin, hands clasped—Violet feels a prickle on the inside of her torso just below her ribs. She forgets this prickle as Beth remembers her last memory of her mom.
A phone call two weeks ago. Violet sighed melodramatically and said, “I won’t help with the stuffing, I’ll make the stuffing and the turkey and the rest of it. I suspect you know that and that you know you’ll get the credit because you’ll be the host this year.”
“What can I say, Mom?” Beth mentally spread her hands. “Apples and trees.”
“I’ll concede under the condition that you actually make your home presentable.”
“Terms accepted, contract signed.” Beth smiled. “Bye Mom.”
Violet reacts little to this recollection. She is only a disembodied voice in it, after all. But the charade of an argument, which mom and daughter rehearsed each Fall, brings a faint smile to the corners of Violet’s eyes.
Beth learned from Charlie’s death that realizing in retrospect that a conversation was your last is hard no matter what was said. So Beth feels their last talk was good, as these things go. If they had both said “I love you”, it would have been perfect. Beth presses her palms to her eyes again. Thanksgivings past play through her head, a reverse time lapse of four decades, her mom growing younger and brighter in each frame until Beth is four, Charlie is six, and her mom is, well, the math doesn’t matter. The plates were lip-to-lip and still pushing out over the edges of the table, piled with foods she couldn’t remember the names of but that her brother certainly could. He was forever getting patted on the head for saying things like, “Mother, could you pass the meringue?” Apple-walnut stuffing, cranberry-pomegranate sauce, pecan-crusted pumpkin pie, vegetables, and, of course, the turkey, honey-glazed.
Violet sees the feast and wonders why she had made so much food for only three. Four-year-old Beth speaks, and Violet knows. Beth took her eyes off the food and twisted around in her chair to search every corner of the dining room, then asked, “Mommy, where’s Daddy?” Her mom froze for only a few seconds before she smiled and carried on. But in that off-guard moment, she looked as if, for her, the sky had collapsed and dragged the earth into itself, down and down into a single unreachable point.
Beth’s mind’s eye fixes on her mom’s expression, clear even after forty years, and then the time lapse moves forward again, progressing through the present to this year’s Thanksgiving and the next year’s and the next’s, through all the Thanksgivings that should have been but now will never be.
Beth lets herself fall to her side. Sandals still on, she inches under the covers. Her mom is, was, incredible. Every year, no matter what—head cold, exams upcoming, Friday hearing, husband gone, son dead—that turkey was on the table. Beth took it for granted until her early twenties after her fourth fighting fish went belly-up and it suddenly hit her—How the Hell does she do it? Be a mom, be a lawyer, do it all, by herself? I can’t even take care of a fish!
Beth goes on remembering, and Violet remains in her corner and observes, reacting little, but absorbing all. With efficiency and care, she takes the memories into her hands like a stack of papers, gives them two good knocks against the desk to align the edges, then files them away inside herself. Violet feels even lighter than before. At the moment Beth slips into sleep, Violet crosses the room to lay an immaterial palm against Beth’s cheek just before the hand and its owner fade into the air.
* * *
As the news spreads, Violet appears beside many rememberers. She appears before her son-in-law, James, her two grandchildren, Preston and Christine (still in elementary), her employees at Police Reform Advocates, the two former co-workers at Tristan’s Family Law Group she had kept in touch with, Shelly and Max, and her sundry extended relatives. Her afterlife is a series of stutters and restarts, which she does not notice because her consciousness begins where the last remembering ended and resumes at each remembering’s start.
What she does notice is that she often appears in many places at once. It is a little overwhelming at first, but Violet was always a good multitasker, and after repeated occurrences, it feels not so different from dipping each finger of the same hand simultaneously into a different glass filled with a different liquid. After a couple days of making appearances, Violet begins to feel like herself again, or at least what she thinks herself would feel like based off people’s recollections. Apart from Beth, she appears longest and most frequently beside her best friend, Susan.
Of the many memories Susan shares with Violet in the days following her death, the one that resonates loudest in Violet and which she is continually drawn back to in her own reminiscences occurs while Susan lies back in her burgundy recliner in a bathrobe and fuzzy slipper socks. Violet rests in the adjacent recliner, occupied by Bill after five and on weekends but vacant on Wednesday afternoons such as this one, and watches Susan with indulgent disapproval. In spite of Violet’s teasing and Bill’s frowning, three years ago Susan decided not to work or dress or cook or do anything important on a Wednesday, ever. Her life has been much the better for it. Some sitcom plays on the television, but Susan is more interested in staring at the mug of roasted chestnut coffee—out of season for August, but who cares? she likes chestnut.—that sits beside a box of tissues in her lap.
Susan and Violet were assigned a room together as freshmen at Arizona State. Susan thought she was shy, but Violet was so reserved Susan kept watch to see when Violet would change her batteries.
Even though Susan and Violet didn’t speak, they sat in adjacent seats in the back of Bates lecture hall for PHL 101, where for fifty minutes three times a week they aimed to become empty space before their professor’s penetrating pointer. It was the third week of class when it happened. Dressed in bowtie and tweed, Dr. Ruger marched headfirst into the hall, led by eyebrows which with each passing year have grown more prominent in Susan’s memory and which could now pass for grey-haired Persian kittens. His pointer drifted before seizing on Violet. Susan exhaled. He demanded, “What was your great-grandfather’s name?”
Her eyes locked with his eyebrows, and she searched, crumpling and uncrumpling the waistline of her dress. “Um…Bill, I think? Did…you know him?” she asked.
The class laughed, and she blushed amaranth. In the present, the memory of blood tickles Violet’s cheeks.
“Good god, how old do I look? No, and the point is, neither do you. How many of you, be honest, remember your great-grandfather’s name, either side of the family?”
A pause, and five people in the brimming hall raised their hands.
“And your great-great-grandfather?”
No one moved.
“Three, four generations and already they have been forgotten. This is the fate that awaits all of us. Your children’s children’s children will not even know your name. What about me? I’ve written half a dozen books, hundreds of articles! Surely they will survive me, be my legacy. Maybe for a hundred years, if I’m very fortunate, but one day the Stalins and Hitlers will destroy my books, or my feeble contributions will be buried under hundreds of heartier, more enlightened texts. Either way, I will be forgotten. One day, if we haven’t already irradiated ourselves to death, the sun will gulp down the Earth and it will be as if no one who ever lived ever was. Think about that and write me a paper on why your life matters.”
This memory makes Violet pause. She pushes herself upright in the recliner and chews on her left cheek. It was the absurdity of that prompt that caused Susan and Violet to converse for the first time. Collusion did not help them. They panicked until an hour before the next class, then each scribbled the best first things that came into their heads: Susan, a line of reasoning involving the domino effect, and Violet, that she was a Baptist and mattered in the eyes of God. Violet received a D for “too much optimism, too little argument.”
The eyes of God, Violet muses. She used to believe very much in that sort of thing, even up until twenty years ago. Looks like Susan was right all along. Susan always had doubts and the higher mark on her paper was perhaps the first domino that led to her falling in with the university atheists two years later. Violet taps her fingers on the chair. She is dead and where’s God now? Or maybe it’s thoughts like that that are keeping her here. Not that she minds. In life, Violet never gave herself time to reminisce. Forward, ever forward, pushing the enemies—loneliness, grief, exhaustion—back an inch at a time. She can sleep when she’s dead, she often said. Well, so much for that.
Susan holds a folded-up tissue to her nose and blows. The spray bursts through and gets all over her hand, but she barely notices. Then there was Walter, Susan recalls. Walter: Violet’s ASU sophomore sweetheart, father of Violet’s two children. Walter: Cheater, deserter. Susan’s shoulders tense and jaw clenches at the thought of him and his stupid freckles and goatee. If she were feeling generous, Susan might admit he did a lot to bring Violet out of her shell in college and perhaps, though unintentionally, even more when he left, but Susan never feels generous concerning Walter. Even today, she sometimes awakens from a dream at half-past three to curse that son of bitch for everything he put Violet through. She has kept the grudge much longer than Violet seemed to. Though it was hard to tell with Violet sometimes. Susan had only seen Violet cry once, ever, and it was when Susan brought her a chicken and dumpling casserole. She had to fly from Atlanta to Phoenix to deliver that casserole, but she would be damned if she would leave her best friend without a son and without a casserole.
Susan is right that Violet had not held on to the grudge. Forward. She’d had fifteen years representing women in custody battles to get Walter out of her system. Remembering him now, Violet looks at her peach-painted nails and wishes she had some chestnut coffee. Still, she takes the memory and files it away. It is good to know who the father of your children is, even when it is better not to know the man himself.
Violet wishes someone would remember to her about Charlie. His file is nearly empty, containing only piecemeal information. A photograph here, a line there, the stench of tragedy all around. For the first time in her death, she feels distressed. How can she not recall the life of her own son? Why must she depend on others to remember for her? She returns her attention to Susan, but Susan has moved on from specific reminiscences.
It’s funny how your idea of young changes as you grow old, Susan thinks as she examines the hands holding her lukewarm chestnut coffee. Why does she have to be both pudgy and wrinkled? One or the other should suffice. Susan sniffles. Violet stifles a giggle. Not that anyone can hear her, she thinks. At twenty-seven, Susan thought sixty-seven was ancient. At sixty-seven, she thinks sixty-seven is quite young, much too young... Susan sniffles again and drifts into thoughtlessness. “To wake up dead,” Violet finishes the phrase and fades from view.
* * *
The wake is Saturday afternoon, held in a parlor with plush purple carpeting and lilac curtains. The flowers follow suit in the color scheme—hydrangeas, carnations, snapdragons, larkspur, lavender. People can be so tacky. Violet loathes her namesake color. She learns from an aunt that her mother dressed the color right out of her, and by seven Violet had to put her foot down.
Violet would like to keep out of the room with the flowers and her open casket. It is disconcerting to look at your own body and see a corpse. But her body is the center of remembering, and Violet is pulled to it. A second cousin squeals, “She looks so lifelike!”, but Violet disagrees. She looks dead, and it is very unflattering.
As more and more people enter the parlor, Violet begins to feel overwhelmed, like when she first started at Tristan’s Family Law Group, handed too many tasks all at once and not knowing how to do them. She sets to organizing, creating categories: Childhood, adolescence, college, married life, middle age, later middle age; children, work, miscellaneous; family, friends, acquaintances, family and friends she wishes were acquaintances; good times, bad times, normal times; etc. Many categories overlap, but redundancies are necessary in complex systems, and Violet is the most complex system Violet has ever had to organize.
As she works, a delicious warmth spreads through her, like drinking hot coffee just quickly enough. That’s how it feels to be remembered this way, by so many all at once. She feels like a pop star who gets weepy on stage Oh, my fans! There’s just so much love in the air tonight! But really, there is. With each remembering, Violet feels more alive, more concentrated, more Violet. The marks of the years have left her hands and arms, and her skin has become, well, if Violet were feeling fanciful, she might say “iridescent.” Violet is feeling fanciful and does say “iridescent” aloud for no one to hear.
Violet’s celebrations are cut short by Susan, who is hiding behind a fern ruminating about eyebrows again. Neither of them ever found a satisfactory answer to Ruger’s question. Things are fine and dandy for Violet here now, being remembered, but she supposes that after the casket is closed and lowered, people will walk away and, one by one, stop remembering her. What then? Are the dead erased, little by little, as their lives fade from the minds of the living? If she peaks so soon after her death, then what is the point of being here at all? If Violet’s fate is to dwindle while those carrying her memory become demented or die, she wants to recall her son clearly at least once before she fades.
Violet’s and Susan’s thoughts are interrupted by the end of the wake and the beginning of the procession to a middle-sized cemetery for middle-class people. There is a hole with straight edges and precisely squared corners. Violet approves. Her as yet unchiseled headstone is also middle-sized, perfect for sitting on. The sky is clear, with a blush on the horizon. Although it is evening, the air shimmers with heat. The mourners sweat under their black garments. A minister speaks with vigorous solemnity, but no one pays him much mind. They are remembering.
The ones remembering Violet are not really thinking of her but rather of themselves and what they will miss. But they are thinking of her through themselves, which, Violet supposes, must have always been how they knew her, and how everyone knows anyone. Many are not remembering Violet at all, but other past funerals of people who mattered more to them than her. Violet does not begrudge them this. Her attention is focused on Beth, who is recalling another funeral that seems to have taken place in this very spot. No, not the same spot, but one just to the left. Violet sees through Beth the phantom of an adjacent hole and blank headstone where now the hole is filled and the headstone engraved:
Of course! Of course she would be buried next to her son. Beth’s remembering flows on, alongside others who knew him and cannot help but think of him here, and Charlie’s story returns to Violet.
Charlie was a first-born child with a last-born’s spirit, easy-going and unusually well-mannered. As a preschooler, he invented ways to climb up on shelves to rearrange Violet’s collections of porcelain swans and snow globes. Violet was pleased with this and bought him a ladder for his fifth birthday. As a teenager, he was less irritable than other boys his age, and when angered ran about the apartment gently turning tables upside-down. As a young man, Charlie wore a Diamondbacks cap and ripped leather pants, and enjoyed talking with anyone about anything but TV news. Most people who talked with him liked him, and when someone didn’t, it was usually because they suspected he was a homosexual. Violet also suspected he was a homosexual and therefore neglected to inquire about his romantic interests but did, at Susan’s insistence, send him to college with several pamphlets on HIV.
This, she had felt, was a good compromise between her desire to keep her son safe and her desire not to encourage any deviant behaviors. And, if she were being brutally honest, as she is now after it is far too late to help either of them, her desire simply not to know if her son was living in sin.
“Living in sin.” How absurd, she thinks. As if anyone could do anything but. And now what irony to hear the silent prayers of dozens of well-intentioned relations for her soul, suspecting she is an unbeliever. Well, perhaps they are right and this is the price she must pay. Before his death, she had worried a lot about where Charlie would go. After, things like that hardly seemed to matter. She had just wished he were here.
Violet struggles to reign in her thoughts and regain control of the narrative. Upside-down, pamphlets, gay?, college. College. Charlie studied graphic design and afterward landed a job with a shabby but optimistic company in Maryvale called Ash’s Phoenix Design Inc. That is where Charlie was killed.
The police department apologized, of course. Deepest regret, they said. Disciplinary action, they said. Caught in the crossfire, they said. Except there was no crossfire. Just a cop firing round after round after a running man. And Charlie, on a stroll and smoke that took him to the corner of Bartley and Major, lonely streets lined with “for lease” signs and uneven cement, where his path intersected that of Shawn Staimin, mugger, and the .40 headed for his head.
Violet’s wrath rattled everyone, even Susan. If Violet could have, she would have split the belly of that pig barehanded, pushed his gun and badge deep inside his bowels, then clawed and rent and twisted, ripped out the viscera and thrown it over her shoulder to collect in stinking heaps on the pavement, and screamed, “THIS! THIS IS FOR WHAT YOU DID TO MY SON!”
She organized rallies, vigils, and told every media outlet she could find, but Violet was like a lightbulb just before it blows, and two weeks later, she went dark. Susan stayed for a couple weeks to take care of things after she brought the casserole; she watched Violet yell at her about justice and brutality and murder one night, then wake up the next day as the Violet she had known their first weeks of college. Silent, expressionless, withdrawn in and in to a single, unreachable point. A robot inside an infinitesimal. It was the only time in Violet’s life she did not know how to move forward.
In the following months, Violet strove not to let Beth see how bad it was for her. For Beth alone, she tried to remain the same Violet: Unflappable, forward-moving. She did not lift the whole sky, but tore off a tiny piece of it, just enough to make a swaddle, a hidey-hole to protect Beth from the weight of the world. She kept up pretenses by telling Beth that she planned to start a non-profit, Police Reform Advocates. Beth saw the strain her need put on her mom. Sometimes she hated herself for her need, but it did not stop her from needing. One day, Violet decided the best way to keep up pretenses was to make plans to start Police Reform Advocates. So she did, and Beth was glad. When Violet finished her business models and paperwork, she decided the best way to keep up pretenses was to start Police Reform Advocates. So she did, and Beth was glad. Thus, slowly, but with increasing momentum, Beth’s need pulled Violet forward until the difference between pretense and actuality was indistinguishable to either of them.
Now, Violet stands in the shimmering heat before her son’s headstone. She keeps her eyes closed and focuses on filing. The distance of two decades is upon the memories, and there are no surprises for her. Rather, Violet feels that an essential piece of herself, something she has known all along but been unable to verbalize, has returned to her. When she opens her eyes, she is quite surprised to see that gravity has unhooked itself from her fuzzy periwinkle slipper socks and she is floating above the crowd. She hears a woman whose face is obscured by a hula-hoop-sized brim tell Beth her mother is watching over her, and Violet laughs aloud when she realizes that she is. She feels it again, the warmth, the effervescence moving through her and radiating out in waves that meld with the waves of heat rising from the black-spotted earth.
Then the shimmering waves begin to resolve themselves into shapes, a mass of indistinct human forms. One breaks off from the rest and rises. As it approaches, it clarifies, and she sees a young man wearing a Diamondbacks cap and ripped leather pants.
Charlie stops a few feet in front of her and hesitates, as if unsure what to do next, then he licks his lips and says in his soft, mellifluous voice, “Hi Mom. It’s good for you to see me again.”
Violet flies forward and embraces him so tightly that it’s good they don’t need to breathe. She holds her forehead against his shoulder for a long time; then, his words penetrate her daze.
She holds him at arm-length, hands on his shoulders, and meets his gaze. “You’ve been with me…all along?”
Charlie nods. “Yes.”
Violet’s arms tremble and she makes eye contact with the sunglasses hanging from Charlie’s V-neck. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers.
“For?” he asks with a soft voice but firm tone.
Violet bites her lip. “For everything. For not enough. For, I don’t know. I…I thought some pretty nasty things about you.”
“About my being gay.”
Violet flinches. “Yes.”
Charlie lifts his right hand and folds it around her wrist. “You know, it’s funny, when I was alive, I always thought I’d die before I told you.” Charlie smiles. Violet smiles, too, but does not meet his eyes. “Mom, it’s okay. I’ve already forgotten it.”
Violet’s nose begins to stuff up, her eyes begin to brim, and for the second time in anyone’s memory, Violet breaks down and sobs into someone else’s arms.
When she finally wipes her eyes on her sleeve and looks up, she gasps.
Like congregations of fireflies dancing at dusk; no, like tangled strings of Christmas lights stretching on past the horizon; no, like constellations moving in patterns so vast and intricate an afterlife of filing could not sort them out, are the souls of everyone who has ever been.
Violet moves back and looks at Charlie. “How?” she asks. “I thought I was only a memory, and memories fade. When everyone we know is gone, who is left to recall us to life?”
“Us,” Charlie says. “We remember each other.”
Violet looks Charlie in his big beautiful brown eyes. She looks at Beth and Susan on the ground, who watch earth being tossed across her mortal remains. She smiles. She will see them again soon, and later, hopefully much later, they will see her. She does pause to wonder whether this system of remembering can continue after the sun gulps down the Earth or when there are no people left alive to pump new energy into it, but those problems are a long way away. Maybe she will find Dr. Ruger and chat with him about them. For now, Violet takes Charlie’s hand, and together they turn to join the constellar formations of undying memories.
DEVIN GUTHRIE is a disabled, genderqueer, asexual studying Existential Psychology at Texas A&M University. They are a three-time recipient of the James F. Parker award, and their work has appeared in The Notre Dame Review, Confrontation, Hubbub, and Takahē.