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March 2, 2017 | Nonfiction

Second-Worst Death

Brittany Hailer

Second-Worst Death photo

In my grandmother’s bed, I put on her old night gown. The soft fabric is slack and pink around my breasts, the bed stretches like a Cadillac. I turn the television up so not to hear her wheezing from the other room. I chain-smoke because I know she can’t smell it. Here, I drink wine, read, and sleep sound.

She is downstairs, in another bed. The sort that that sits up when you tell it to. A rubber bed. A dead person’s bed. A bed with gray bars like a gate to pig’s pasture.

She is still freckled as I imagine she was when she was a girl in Ireland. In the evenings, I shave her legs.  She brags about how little hair she has. She asks if I shave my vagina. Her skin smells like Keri lotion and almonds when I lean in to adjust her pillow. What do you think? I ask. Bloated yellow tubes pour blood from her legs and heart. She covers them with rosebud blankets. I don’t know what I think. She asks for a cup of coffee. The blood stains are almost indistinguishable from flowers on her sheets. I know to look closer to see what needs washing. I know to call her diapers her knickers. “Purple or pink knickers, today,” I say. She demands I paint her toenails to match.

Before I close her door she whispers up to me, says it just loud enough so I can hear and pretend it’s nothing:

Losing a sibling is the second worst death; the first is a child.

When I die, take the jar of buttons and bury it beneath the magnolia tree.

Name your daughter Marmalade.

***

At midnight my brother stumbles up the stairs carrying a pie, a grin stretched across his face like a melon slice.

He asks me, why are you crying?

I say, The dog died in my book.

I point to words he doesn’t see, to silver stars etched into a blue spine. He laughs, throws his body across my book and our grandmother’s bed. That’s why I don’t read, I love my dog too much.

He smells of fryer grease and sweat. He’s been working at the seafood restaurant on the island. He moved in with Nana months ago to take care of her. I am only staying for a little while, and only because he asked me for help. I think he is excited for me to be home.  

Here, he says and opens the plastic lid, Eat.

We eat with our hands. We get messy. We giggle Oreo cream cookie. A glass of milk balances on a pillow, which we know, in another life, would cause our grandmother to squawk profanities. We whisper to each other about our dead dogs and the ghosts living in the walls. We lie back and watch the ceiling fan patiently hum. Downstairs a cough hushes us. She’s okay, he says and wipes his face with the back of his hand. I watch him get up to listen for her at the top of the stairs and wonder if it is he who will find me.

I want it like I want him to read. I fear a life with his corpse. I know, deep down, there’s no such thing as ghosts. I know I can’t survive his casket. My brother is poetry; his death will mute me. I fear this worse than I fear a fate of plastic sheets and blood thick as syrup, stopping the heart and lungs.

But I have another fear too. I fear life without words. How can someone not read? I wonder if it’s avoiding pain—for loving the dog. My brother the caretaker is too busy for sad stories.

Even still, I wish my funeral upon him. Because I am selfish. Because I lived and re-lived these sibling-death stories. Because I cry alone in a pink nightie. Because I want books to bring my brother back to me. I imagine it, my brother, up the stairs with a pie.

But he is old this time, bald perhaps. My silver, tangled hair tumbles like cotton pulled from a pillow.  My brother steps into the room. He smells marmalade and stillness.  He knows. He leans in, adjusts the nightie slack around my neck. He kisses the second-worst death, and lifts a book from my chest. He settles beside me, feels the cold through the sheets, and places the pie on my belly.

Then he reads.

 My brother cries, but not because of me.

 

image: Aaron Burch


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