The following excerpt from Lakewood by Megan Giddings is reprinted courtesy of HarperOne/Amistad Books:
Lena’s grandmother’s final instructions were that the funeral should be scheduled for 11 a.m. but would start at 11:17 when everyone would be there and seated. Deziree, if she was well, would give one of the eulogies, and at the luncheon, Lena would give presents and letters to Miss Toni’s closest friends and tell them one last time how special they were to her. Anyone who was still alive and didn’t attend, Lena would send letters to them within a week. And by 8 p.m., Deziree and Lena should be at the casino across town, the one with the good buffet.
Still in her black dress and high heels, Lena listened to the slot machine’s’ songs, their rhythms and chimes, the excited harmony of multiple machines loudly announcing a winner. Her mother, Deziree, was talking to a few of the bouncers and waitresses, accepting their condolences, nodding as one said, “I still can’t believe it. Miss Toni. Jesus. I’m thirty and she was in better shape than me.” And a year ago, that had been true. “She was more alive than most people I know.” Lena nodded.
The day before she’d died, the three of them were in the hospital room, and her grandmother had said, “What I wouldn’t give for one more June day.” She wanted to talk with her friends on the porch, eat a bowl of raspberries with whipped cream on top, grill out, and stay up late playing cards with the two of them. And the weather would be warm, not hot. Big cloud, blue sky weather. Lena had excused herself, went to get tea, and hoped that at the end of her own life, she would only want one more good, but not special, day.
“Y’all are in my prayers.”
“Thank you,” Lena and Deziree said in unison. The two of them were so used to hearing variations of that, the response was now automatic.
Inside the casino, they sowed coins into Cleopatra slot machines. After losing five times in a row, Lena stopped and cashed out. Deziree kept going. Her face was illuminated pink and blue by the machine and it made the tear stains on her cheeks visible again.
“Stop being so rude,” Deziree muttered to the machine after losing a second time.
Lena shut her eyes. It was the first time all day the two of them had been alone, where she didn’t feel like she had to look brave or grateful or think about anyone else’s feelings. She was saturated with the day. Her grandmother’s face in the casket, so still—Lena could only look at it for a few seconds before having to look instead at the pink carpet of the church floor, the white flowers, or her own manicure, gray. Her mother’s voice, so steady, as she spoke about Miss Toni. Watching her and trying to focus on the speech, the goodbyes, rather than worrying every time her mom’s hands shook, every time she stumbled a little bit on a word, that another flare-up was about to start. The mixture of flowers, mildew, and heavy perfume that only really smelled like perfume—not vanilla or lilies like the bottles probably said—and roast chicken in the church basement.
“I’m exhausted,” Lena said.
“Feelings? Or do you need to change your shoes? Or?”
“We promised her this.”
Lena watched as Deziree went up 10, down 20, up 30. She liked the color blue they used for the scarabs. The dopey cats wearing hats. How the game designers had thrown in some fancy English letters rather than try to do all hieroglyphics. How there was no way for her to understand how to win the game—it seemed to be all great robotic whims.
A pack of Miss Toni’s friends turned the corner and descended on them. They were in casual clothes, silky pants and tracksuits, but still stunk of the thick perfumes they probably spritzed on every time they dressed up. “Here you girls are.”
“Did she tell you all to come here too?”
One squeezed Lena’s left shoulder. The other flicked something off her right arm. Another asked Deziree how she was feeling, did she need anything? And Lena, how was she keeping up with classes? College alone is a lot. I can’t imagine being so young.
“Everything is going good at school. All of the professors were really nice and understanding—”
“Do you all have things to eat?”
The kindness was suffocating. So many casseroles, so many cards, so many people dropping by, so many thinking-of-yous. Lena wanted to be good and kind. And she was grateful that so many people loved her grandma. But it was also exhausting to have so many people looking into her face, looking at the parts of it and trying to find Miss Toni in it.
A waitress carrying a tray squeezed in among them and cleared her throat. “Courtesy of Miss Toni.” She passed two Dark & Stormys to Lena and Deziree. The waitress paused, her face crumpled, and she fled.
“Was she at the funeral?” Lena asked.
“Maybe? In the back?” Deziree held her Dark & Stormy up, clinked it against Lena’s. “Cheers.”
The women stayed around them, chitchatting about how Toni had done such a great job raising them both, as if Deziree wasn’t going to turn 43 that year. Lena turned back to Deziree’s screen: She was up 65 dollars now.
“I’ll be right back,” Lena said. She walked to the nearest bathroom, taking her drink with her. She sat in the stall farthest from the door. Took the deepest breath she could, then let it out slowly. Contorted her face into different expressions—happy, anguished, I’m-going-to-get-you-bitch—and took a long drink. There were two extra lime slices in it like her grandmother always ordered. How many Dark & Stormys do I have to have, she wondered, to feel like you’re here with us? A song about being so much in desire for someone that you felt like you had burst into flames was leaking through the speakers in the ceiling.
“Lena?” Her mother screamed loudly.
She finished her drink, set the glass on the floor, and went out to Deziree.
“Everything okay?” Lena asked. The mirror gave a full view of the back of her mother’s head—it looked as if she had been pulling on her hair. Her black bra straps poked out. Her eyes were bloodshot, her fingers trembling. It was hard to tell whether it was because of the poor bathroom lighting or because of illness, but Deziree’s skin was now sallow.
“We can go home.” Lena said, smoothing her mother’s hair and adjusting the straps back into place. She watched her hands and mouth for tremors, but they were still. Deziree’s dark lipstick was smudged, but still looked pretty good.
“I lost it all,” Deziree said. They paused for a moment, and both laughed.
Lena coughed when she was finished. She couldn’t help asking, “You took your medicine today, right?”
“I wouldn’t have been able to do anything today without it.”
They left the bathroom and headed to Miss Toni’s favorite blackjack dealer. When he noticed them, he signaled a waitress, who brought over two more Dark & Stormys. “May you have Toni’s luck tonight,” he said. Then, with a laugh, “Please don’t have her luck. I need a job.”
They smiled at each other, then did what they always did—snapped their fingers for luck and clasped hands. One of the first things Lena could remember her grandma teaching her was blackjack. The game’s rules, but also things like remembering—as with most individual sports—that it was also a game you mostly played against yourself. You had to be confident, engaged, patient. Don’t allow yourself to be polluted by the dealer’s silence or the chitchat of the people around you.
Lena leaned forward a little. Focused on counting and paying attention to everyone’s cards, watching the dealer’s hands and eyes, looking for tells. She sipped her drink slowly, at a rate fast enough to make her feet ache a little less, but not enough to feel too bold. And when she hit blackjack for the first time, she automatically turned to the right, where her grandmother might be, before quickly turning and squeezing Deziree’s hands with delight.
An hour later and two hundred dollars richer—an amount Miss Toni would have called “fine”—they shimmied and danced their way over to the buffet to eat blueberry-bacon gelato and lobster and scrambled eggs. As they waited to get severed coffee, Deziree kept putting one hand over her forehead and rubbing the spot between her eyebrows. “Don’t worry,” she kept saying.
Deziree sagged down, her head and forearms resting on the table. She didn’t notice the purple gelato drip pattern that she was creating on the front of her dress.
Lena asked the waitress for a double Americano.
“She drunk?” the waitress asked. She was young, probably a college student. Hair dyed purple, a nose ring. She had also been at the funeral, Lena realized.
“Nah. She good.”
“This is the best I’ve felt in days.” Deziree was crumpling into illness, grief, exhaustion. Her voice came out slurred.
“She gonna need a chair?”
Lena took off her own left shoe beneath the table and rubbed her toes hard. “We’ll be out of here in ten, I promise. She’s fine.”
Stumbling into their living room, Deziree dumped the contents of her purse on the floor. Dollars, credit cards, lipstick, a mint that looked as if it had already been sucked on and then put back in the cellophane wrap, coins scattered across the wood floors. Deziree looked at the mess for a moment, then fell.
Lena rushed to her side. Her mom propped herself up.
“Smile at me,” Lena said. “I’m fine.”
“Come on. We both know you didn’t drink that much.”
Deziree gritted her teeth. Lena raised her eyebrows. Deziree rolled her eyes and did a big fake grin.
Lena had her mother lift her arms and repeat the phrase, “Pancakes are better with bananas in them.”
“They said we had to do this every time you fall.”
“You sound just like her.”
Deziree sat up and went to her bedroom. When she returned, she was holding a large envelope that was stuffed to the limits. She tossed it onto Lena’s stomach.
“Can we do this later today?”
But her mother was already in the kitchen, opening drawers and rifling through cabinets as if she had stored secrets among the plates and glasses. Inside the envelope were bills. Insurance statements that looked as if they were all disagreeing with each other about the amount of coverage. Folded-over invoices from the cemetery, the funeral home. Electric and water bills. Some receipts. Deziree came back holding more bills.
“Have any of these been paid?”
“I don’t know.”
Deziree stooped over the coffee table. She pulled more bills between the magazines. It felt like an absurd magic trick.
Lena rubbed her eyes and the remnants of her mascara stained her fingertips. She made herself sit up straight.
“There’s more bills I can pull up on my phone.”
Lena felt all the aftershocks of no sleep, the stress of the past months, and now this. She wanted to go to bed and sleep for three days. Instead, she went to the kitchen, found the least green banana she could, poured a glass of water, and pulled out her mom’s pillbox. There were only enough pills in the box until Saturday.
“I’m sorry, Biscuit—” her mom began. Lena handed everything over. “Take these.” Her mom’s eyes were watering. Lena made her mouth soft, adjusted her posture. “I’m not mad, I’m just tired.”
“This day has been too long for us to have this conversation right now.” She watched her mother carefully, making sure she swallowed her pills, ate at least half of the banana, drank all the water. Lena squeezed her mother’s hands when they were free, hoping the gesture was reassuring. “Get some sleep and we’ll talk about this in the afternoon.”
Deziree stood up and went to her room. Lena picked up the bills and carried them out to the kitchen table. She organized them into categories: house, medical-Mom, funeral, medical-Grandma. Then she pulled out a pen and her notebook from her backpack and flipped to her current to-do list: an astronomy test the next day that she still hadn’t studied enough for, a three-hour shift at her work-study job that night, Spanish conversation lunch about going shopping where she was supposed to lead a conversation entirely in Spanish. Thank-you letters to write. Coordinating with Miss Shaunté about Deziree’s home health care schedule. She needed to understand the math to calculate a star’s gravity and its effect on everything around it while it was still living. Figure out summer work.
Lena tapped the pile of bills with her pen, flipped the page, and started a brand-new list.
Megan Giddings is a fiction editor at The Offing, a winner of the Whiting Literary Magazine Prize, and a features editor at The Rumpus. She is the recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant for feminist fiction. Her short stories have been published in Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, and The Iowa Review. Megan holds degrees from the University of Michigan and Indiana University. She lives in Indiana. Lakewood is her first novel.
Music by Catlofe