I suppose I could tell the story in order. I suppose I could talk about the summer of 2004 when my husband left me for a younger man. But I think my story starts with an explosion of sorts. Okay, an actual explosion.
It was soon after that I met Kat. Kat and Wanker.
"How—oh my God!"
"Well, I mean, what do I do?"
"What-do-I-do? I mean, she's--was--my mother...but we weren't exactly... on speaking terms. At all."
"You need to come down and fill out some paperwork, retrieve her personal effects and, uh, what you do with the rest is up to you."
I'd often wished for a father I knew. At this moment I silently beg God to magically incarnate him. My father would show up and say "Chelsea, Chelsea...I got this. No worries. Your poor mother. I knew she'd meet with a bad end, but this! Oy, I didn't think she'd end up exploded-like in her study!"
I don't know why my father is a Jewish man from the Bronx. I amalgamate him with a man from Little Italy sometimes, too. My heart thuds dangerously in my head, threatening to crush my eyes. Angry tears surface and I'm not sure who I'm angry at the most.
"Ma'am? When can you come down?"
"Oh, sorry...Jesus. I...now, I guess."
"Okay, and your name?"
"Chelsea. Chelsea Fieldm—I mean Sarkozy."
I practice my maiden name again. Sarkozy. "Fieldman" is my married name and it really is time to let that go. It's been two months. Two months and one week. The divorce papers are in my "To Do" pile along with my mammogram order. Thinking of the divorce has a hollow quality to it as opposed to the news of my mother. That feels like a thick pile of fetid shit in my gut.
I pace in my miniscule kitchen and find my hand is shaking. Only one fucking hand, like I'm in control of just part of my motor functions. I switch ears. My hand continues to shake but now the call feels real.
"Okay, Mrs. Sarkozy—"
"It's--it's Ms. Sarkozy."
"Sorry, Miss Sarkozy—"
"No, it's...never mind."
"Nothing. I'll be there as soon as I can. I'm in Pacific Heights."
"Okay, thank you very much."
"Oh, do I need to, you know, identify anything? Because I'm—I have a little problem with, uh, gooey ...things."
"'Gooey things?' No, no-- your mother was found in her home, and a neighbor ID'ed her."
"There wasn't much goo."
"I mean she hit her head on the wall when the blast threw her backwards. That's how they determined that she, ya know, died."
I wince and the room tilts.
I don't want the image of my mother sailing through the air and hitting a wall. It was too clear a visual from my childhood. I vaguely smell cigarette smoke. I almost expect to hear her cough. I tenuously hear the deathly silence.
The phone slips slightly from my ear. I clear my throat.
"So, what--what exploded? I mean, do they know what set off the blast?"
"Yeah. It seems that she was smoking and using oxygen. At the same time--a big no-no from where I sit."
"What? Who smokes while they're on oxygen!"
"Well, ma'am, your mother, apparently."
I hang up the phone and everything's changed. I'd never needed to be angry at anyone else.
I exit the bus near the Medical Examiner's building on Bryant Street. I wonder when it will hit me, or if it will. I'd had five minutes of maniacal crying at home. Then I had to be somewhere. I had to come here.
The last words my mother said to me ran along the lines of "uptight bitch." I can't remember what I'd said to her but it probably involved the words "vodka-soaked." I tell myself that last words don't matter.
After navigating the massive white structure for what seems like hours, I finally find a helpful officer who directs me to the morgue.
I stand at the desk and when no one runs to my aid, I "ding" the bell. It even has a little sign: "Ring for Service."
A rotund woman in a uniform waddles out of her cave. She's obviously pissed off that I can read. I try to make eye contact but she's staring at the bell. The reverberations must still be dinging in her dog ears.
"Hi, I'm here to—"
Her face collapses into the best Billy Idol scowl I'd ever seen. Even on Mr. Idol.
"The deceased's." Oh good, she has gum. Chomp, chomp, chomp.
She looks at me as though I'm lying to her. Maybe people did that? I tap my fingers nervously on the counter until her eyes, like unholy impaling instruments, stop them with a glance.
"Room eight. Down the right hall. Your right."
"Thanks so much. You have yourself a great day." I smile and the woman raises her eyebrows as though I'd just propositioned her. If this is the kind of person they hire, that gives me yet another reason to dread death.
I stride down the hall and I hear sobs coming from room four. I give the door a wide berth in case some weeping, wailing person careens out and wants to touch me.
"Room eight. Here we go." I sigh and knock. No one answers. I realize that no one would answer since it's probably just my mother's things sitting in there.
"You Miss Sarkozy?"
"I—yeah. That would be me."
A man walks out of a room a little further down the hall. He is older and he too chomps gum.
"Go right in. I'll be there in a sec. I'm Gus, the guy you talked to on the phone."
"Okay, thank you. Gus." Gus has no ass. It's nonexistent; his belt is held up by some mystical region just below his ample belly. What do morgue employees snack on that makes them into giant gumdrops on stilts? I don't want to think about it.
The door is heavier than Gus and Desk Lady combined. I exert more effort than I'd like to open it.
There's a table in the cheery room of painted gray on top of gray cinder block. The industrial gray carpet adds to the overall gray charm of the gray room. The table is beige. You know a room is dreary when beige adds a splash of color.
Gus walks in with a letter box. "Okay, here ya go."
It smells profusely of cigarette smoke. It's definitely my mother's things. The paperwork appears in front of me on the beige table. I wonder how many tears the matte wood has sopped up. I stop touching it, just in case.
"We just need a couple signatures here and....here. So sorry for your loss." He practically sings it. The cadence has all of the sincerity of a political speech. This makes me glance up to see his face. It's a mask of a mask of sincerity.
I clear my throat again and mutter "Thank you."
"See a lot of smokers come through here." Gus chomps and makes small talk. He eyes me. I suddenly feel like I'm on trial. On trial for my mother's actions, a familiar position. I still don't know how to not be defensive.
"I don't smoke."
"Hm. Well, if you mother hadn't smoked, we wouldn't be here today."
We share a weird moment of head nodding. Gus gives me an eyebrow raise toward the papers and the little x's where I'm supposed to sign. Gus has other people to console and irritate.
"Oh, sorry." I scribble my name and he snatches the papers up before I can read anything. I probably just donated a kidney.
"Okay, here are her things. We keep ‘em here for three days so if you have a specific mortuary in mind, today'd be the day to ring 'em up. Get things arranged."
"I don't—I've never done this before, do I just tell them to come get her and...?"
"Yeah. They'll handle everything. And if your mom had any, ya know, other relations and such, you should contact them. Okay? Okay."
"Okay" was Gus's way of saying "get the hell out," so I nod and pick up the box. I wanted to puke all over the clothes from the smoke stench. I could see her velour pants folded neatly on top. I assume that she still wore velour sweat suits up until her death. I've no earthly idea what rests under her suit. Fucking ironic, that's what I am.
The dumpster on the side of the building is open. Lucky for me. I don't want to even touch it. Any of it.