Carrie’s hand trembles on the doorknob. Stark letters are etched into rusting copper on the sign above the door. The Witness Room. She opens the door, walks into the unfolding pageant, with its motherlode of unmined possibilities. The sorrow of near-possibilities. The ragged sadness of the never-possible.
Mama Sue is dead.
She smells the lilies first, sweet and cloying. Heady, though not smelling of death as she imagines they might. Tall crystal vases hold roses the colour of clotted cream, rust and gold lilies, baby’s breath. Soft candlelight throws flickering shadows across the wall.
There is a small stirring, a movement towards her. Mama Sue’s daughters—Carrie’s cousins. The whisper of long skirts and rustling silk. Layla, larger than life, a wide straw hat, her voice too loud, smelling of patchouli oil and summer fruit. Laurel with her wide smile, her mother’s sweetness shining through, wears a dark purple shawl pressed to her chest as though it might hold all her sadness in. And Annie with her silent tears, her narrow body, her fierce knowing. She hugs Carrie and says nothing. It’s all been said.
The boys are here also. Jake, with tears shining in his eyes. Carrie’s eyes fill too, as he hugs her. This is not the Jake she has known. Some piece of his armour has shifted, left a crack. When Ben hugs her, Carrie imagines she can feel the long snaking scar on his back, but of course she can’t. It has long since faded into a pale silvery ladder. Carrie was not a witness to the event, but she sees the fishing line and hook cut through the air, slice open his back. The bright blood that streams from his split flesh. She hears his screams.
Thank you for coming, they all say, thank you for coming.
Five of the six grandchildren are lined up against the wall like leftovers at a school dance. None of them have witnessed death before. They all adored their Mama Sue, bloomed in her unstinting love. As each child was born, Mama Sue planted a rose bush for them: Charm of Paris, Angel Face, Blue Moon, Irish Eyes, Ballerina, Cherish.
Mama Sue’s rose garden grew alongside the sprawling mansion on River View Crescent, where they all grew up—a neighbourhood steeped in old money, with tree-lined avenues that curved around the river, wide boulevards, old stone walls and carriage houses, wrought iron gates and winding lamp-lit driveways. Pinkerton security men parked in the Crescent late at night, leaned against their cars while smoking under the lamplight.
This was where the grandchildren spent so many days and nights of their childhood, prowling the hallways and back stairs, that in another time and in another family were servants’ stairs. The wide oak front staircase spiraled up to the second floor—another magical mystical world with its stained glass windows, claw-footed bathtubs, and polished brass faucets. The bedrooms overlooked the gardens and the fish pond. Fat pink plaster angels danced across the ceiling. In the kitchen a dumbwaiter sat empty, its purple velvet rope musty with age.
The third floor, out-of-bounds for the children, was boarded out to strangers—mental patients learning to live their lives outside the walls of a hospital. An income from the government for Papa Sam. That’s all these strangers were to him. And it was Papa Sam who fed them—bowls of thick oatmeal, wieners and beans, cold cuts. Sometimes a winter stew on a cold and rainy Sunday. The boarders came and went in silence, ghosts barely disturbing the air in the room.
On summer afternoons there would always be one or two or more grandchildren swimming in the pool, helping Mama Sue in her garden, or chasing after Papa Sam chugging through the grass on his ride-on mower. There was the fort in the old weeping willow tree, the murky fish pond, acres of grass to run wild in.
Life at the Big House.
Carrie can see Mama Sue’s hands in the coffin, softly folded, but she can’t see her face.
Rachel, the oldest grandchild, sits on the floor beside Papa Sam’s wheelchair. Carrie can only see the back of his white head and his arm draped over the side of the casket, stroking Mama Sue’s arm. Rachel wears a suit, dove grey. Her legs are folded under her. Silver rings on her fingers sparkle in the light. She may even have bells on her toes, Carrie thinks. This is Rachel, after all.
Papa Sam is captivated by Rachel’s presence at his feet. It is impossible to hear what she is saying to him, her words so private, so unspeakably intimate. Her long fingers stroke his arm. Her eyes are wide and brown, dusted in silver shadow. Perhaps it is a trick of light that casts her somewhere between angel and seductress, her low murmuring voice making promises that she will never have to keep.
Mama Sue is silent. As she has always been.
Rachel stands, walks over to Carrie and gives her a hug. Her body is a tall narrow curve, like Corsiva script. She is lovely, the essence of grace, her skin brown from the sun, her eyes wide and alive. But Carrie knows the flaws in her loveliness—the vicious scar from the hysterectomy she had at age twenty-nine, and another from abdominal surgery for her Crohn’s disease the following year.
A few years ago she came to visit Carrie in her office, wearing short shorts and a cropped top, displaying her scars as a badge of honour. She has always needed to flaunt her wounds. And she has many.
Layla begins to sing her mother’s favourite song: How High the Moon. “Somewhere there’s music; How faint the tune; Somewhere there’s heaven; How high the moon.” Layla once sang at the Railway Club downtown, back when her voice was young and sweet. She is the youngest, tough, smart, and funny. Layla always wanted to be one of the boys, hounded her brothers for inclusion in their jacked-up lives. She never wanted to be like her sisters, eschewed the soft and fanciful.
There is something jarring in the golden light of the room. Layla’s voice cracks. Carrie hasn’t heard her sing in years. Years of Layla smoking drugs, years of bitter rage at her father, the misplaced hopes that burned a hole in her dreams.
But still. Mama Sue would have loved to hear her sing. Her baby.
Carrie waits to approach Papa Sam, the patriarch who still rules from his crumbling throne. Will he remember her? His memory fades in and out like a bad telephone connection. She leans around him; he recognizes her and smiles. She tells him that Mama Sue was an inspiration to her, that she loved her. This is true. Sam drops his head. “I don’t know what I’ll do without her.” His voice is molasses slow, thick with age.
Carrie finally looks at Mama Sue. She sees now what a Witness Room truly is. They have all come here to attest to the truth of Mama Sue’s death. And her life. But the best trick has been saved for last: the perfection of this final viewing. Mama Sue’s hands are folded in sweet surrender; roses laid against her cheek. She is more beautiful than Carrie has ever seen her. Her face is soft and serene, her hair a halo of white cloud that shimmers in the muted light. She is surrounded by flowers and in her folded hands is her mother’s silver heart pendant. Inside the locket, Carrie knows, is a photograph of Mama Sue’s mother, Carrie’s grandmother, who died when Mama Sue and Carrie’s mother were just children. Mama Sue kept it on the table beside her bed, always.
Annie reads Yeats: “When you are old and grey and full of sleep; And nodding by the fire, take down this book; And slowly read, and dream of the soft look; Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep; How many loved your moments of glad grace.”
Annie was the brilliant child, the thin one, the one who got away from the family, at least for a while, and graduated from a university back east. She met Julian there, found what she had been searching for so long, her intellectual equal. They had a son, then a daughter. The perfect life, until Annie came home from work early one day not so long ago, and in one grievous life-changing moment, found Julian in bed with a man. Everything Annie had believed in before that moment was shattered. She watched her life seep away like rain from a leaky roof. Where to begin a new life? How to navigate the first steps into a future she didn’t want and couldn’t fathom? In the end they both stayed. Neither of them able to maneuver through the morass and find their way to another life.
Carrie remembers Julian from the early days when they were all young parents, and their children just babies. Afternoons around the pool. Family celebrations. Julian was a giant of a man, both physically and intellectually. A school principal. Tall, at least six four. She found him so intimidating in those days that she rarely spoke to him.
Julian is not here in the viewing room. He is outside alone in the hot relentless sun, walking his dog among the gravestones.
Rachel is suddenly beside her; Carrie feels her hand on her arm, her fingertips against her skin. “You taught me so much,” Rachel says. “That summer. You told me that everything that comes into our lives is here to teach us something. I’ve never forgotten that.” She hesitates. “I just want you to know. That I remember.”
Carrie doesn’t remember teaching Rachel anything that summer she came knocking at her door, asking if she could pitch her tent in Carrie’s yard for a couple of months. Rachel wasn’t exactly in a teachable state. What Carrie does remember, is the day she told her to leave. The day she found the crack pipe on the edge of the bathtub. Rachel went into rehab soon after; it wasn’t her first stint, and it wasn’t her last either. The most recent was for her addiction to Oxycontin that she takes for her never-ending pain.
Rachel had just left rehab the day she came to Carrie’s office with her cropped top and her scars. She was there to ask forgiveness. Step #8: making amends. She said she was sorry for lying and stealing and doing drugs in Carrie’s house. Carrie hadn’t even known about the stealing. A silver ring, Rachel told her, and a pink and green flowered summer dress. There’d probably been more. Carrie didn’t care.
Carrie looks over and sees her cousin Layla reach into the casket and stroke her mother’s silver-braceleted wrist. Jake lays three long-stemmed red roses beside his mother’s folded hands. The daughters lean into the casket, smiling wide for the photograph that Ben is about to take.
The bracelet glints in the candlelight, circling the hand that was never lifted to stop the beatings of her children. Mama Sue carried her own wounds. With her bottle of gin and her book hidden in the pocket of her skirt, her place of solitude was the third-floor bathroom.
The youngest granddaughter has created a DVD that chronicles her grandmother’s life. Photographs in black and white. Mama Sue as a child, sitting on a barrel next to her father, a rum-runner up in the northern islands; as a teenager, married with her first baby—Ben—at eighteen. There is a photo of the five children lined up on the sofa: Ben, Annie, Jake, Laurel, and Layla. No one is smiling in that picture. Another of Mama Sue sitting on the edge of the pool at the Big House, riding the carousel at the lake with one of her grandchildren on her knee. And Carrie’s favourite: Mama Sue and Papa Sam dancing at the Starlight Ballroom to the music of the big bands of the day.
Randy Travis sings the background music: “You’re my always and forever; You’re the one that hung the moon.” Then Louis Armstrong, who Mama Sue loved: What a Wonderful World. And for this moment, it seems that it was.
They’ve all been caught in the family movie at one time or another and in one way or another. Trapped, like flies in honey. Even Carrie. But she got away; most of them didn’t. Ben told Carrie once that for a price, his dad stored the boys’ drugs—mostly pot and hash—in his safe. There were no limits, apparently, to Papa Sam’s generosity as long as he could keep everyone close and servile. All his relationships were fueled either by wealth or by tyranny, often both.
There are stirrings near the coffin. They’re running out of time. Papa Sam has shrunk in his wheelchair. “How much longer do I have with her?” he asks. Not long, they tell him. He asks if he can kiss her. “Go ahead, Dad,” Annie says. “Kiss her.”
Layla looks anxious. Carrie sees her hands smoothing her shirt. Under it, Carrie knows, is the medic-alert button that she presses if she feels a seizure coming on, sending an instant message to an ambulance crew. The last time, she ended up in the psych ward, fought her captors, screamed, tore at her clothes, paced the room like a wild thing and threatened to throw herself off a highway overpass the minute she was released. These days she doesn’t leave her apartment, stays high on pot and watches The Shopping Channel. It’s the only thing that keeps the pain away, she says. Her pain is her only currency now.
Before Mama Sue died, when she was still being held hostage in the house by Papa Sam, he attempted to fire all the hired live-in help, refused to allow anyone but family in. He was finally declared incompetent by the doctors. He lost some of his power then, but not all. He still rules from his chair, his knees covered with the same ragged blanket that he has clung to, and that has been resting on his knees for years, like a child’s tattered plush toy meant to comfort. But he could no longer keep Mama Sue imprisoned.
The daughters spirited Mama Sue out of the house, took her to doctors’ appointments, stopped sometimes on the way home, at a beach where Mama Sue could sit, feel the wind in her hair, and breathe the salt air that hadn’t reached her in years.
She rarely spoke. She gave up words a long time ago. For the last year she refused to come out of her room, so Sam got a cell phone for each of them; he called her hourly from his chair in the living room. She would sit on the bed staring at the ringing phone, empty-eyed, lost to whatever his needs were now.
He still wields enough power to convince his daughters that he will need someone to sleep with him after their mother’s death. It won’t be enough to sit in a chair beside his bed, he says. “I need to feel an arm or a leg when I wake in the night.” And even though he has round-the-clock care, it won’t be enough, he tells them. It has to be family.
They all move towards the door. Sam doesn’t want to leave Mama Sue there. He has already forgotten what happens next. It’s explained to him once again, that she will be cremated. One of the granddaughters takes out a picture of her month-old baby. “I want it to go with Mama Sue,” she says. Another granddaughter looks startled; she wants pictures of her babies to send off with Mama Sue too. She finds her wallet, digs out the pictures and lays them against Mama Sue’s chest. She is caught up in the moment as they all are. Sending the photos with Mama Sue feels right. Their final goodbye.
Carrie wants to leave before the coffin is closed. As they walk out of the room, Annie leans in to her and says, “It’s almost Yom Kippur.” Her voice is hard, bitter. “The Day of Atonement. She nods in the direction of Papa Sam. “And he’s got a lot to atone for.” Annie pushes against the heavy door as though it is the enemy. “My mother had to die just to get a little peace.” The first voiced dissent. The first hint of anger, of shame. An acknowledgement of some truth other than the one that they have all borne witness to here in this room.
Is there an expiry date on atonement? Carries wonders. Can there be forgiveness for the beatings, the vicious name calling, the shattered promises? All the broken lives left in his wake? Has he forgotten beating Ben with the fishing rod, the floor moldings, the baseball bat? What has he done with those memories? Have they simply faded into obscurity? Or is Mama Sue’s death his atonement?
They move towards the door. Papa Sam is weeping. Mama Sue will be burned and buried with her roses, her mother’s silver heart and the photographs of her great-grandbabies. But none of them, Carrie knows, will be able to bury the past. Some will try. Some will stumble with the weight of it. Most were broken a long time ago.
They step outside into the sun, a searing hot disc in the sky. The graveyard is empty, a desert wilderness where nothing is alive, or ever will be.
Carrie catches a slight movement in the hot, still air. She sees Julian far off in the distance, leaning over to read one of the gravestones, his dog beside him, tugging against its leash. He is a small, black-suited figure now, not the giant Carrie remembers. He glances towards them. The family. A ragtag band of hesitant players in this final masquerade. He pauses for a moment, scans the horizon and turns away, disappearing into the burning white sky.