Salena Casha - "The House That Tina Built"

Taking a drag from her cigarette, Tina noticed the fresh grave encroaching on her late husband’s plot. She blew smoke up and over her shoulder and tried for a moment to pretend she hadn’t seen the embossed black-ice facade. Instead, she focused on the fact that she hadn’t had a cigarette in almost a week. That standing there, inhaling nicotine in the blooming air made her feel as though she’d taken a hit from an oxygen tank. Her daughter-in-law was home for school vacation this week and so Tina’s smoking options had been limited to quick drags over the stove with the fan on full blast.

That woman’s always trying to kill me, Tina thought to herself.

She took another drag, fingers pressed to Lorenzo’s marker but she couldn’t ignore the newly turned earth inches from her loafers. The wind blew her hair and smoke back into her face.

Why has the groundskeeper given such little space for Lorenzo? What does he have against us?

Her brow pinched as she pushed herself off of his gravestone and trudged the slim four steps to his neighbor. It was too cold for bugs but that hadn’t stopped the diggers from overturning earth and installing a new landmark in the cemetery.

Carlson, she read and then crossed herself. Not even Italian.

She took a casual turn, surveying the grounds. A pond glistened 100 yards off, a beaver dam half-constructed on the water’s farthest lip. The stone-ground paths wound just close to Lorenzo’s grave before spiraling outward, looping and weaving through the green grass and scattershot trees. A wild turkey meandered by the water’s stone bridge.

It was good to be alone.

She stepped carefully around the foreign grave, her soles sinking a centimeter into the ground.

Unlike most people, she did not find death disturbing. She did not find walking on someone else’s resting place disturbing. What disturbed her, what angered her was the lack of due respect and space given to her husband.

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she let the cigarette dangle from between her fingers. The ash was a thin column, particles angled toward the dirt below her. This Carlson stone was fine, if a bit modern for her. It was thick and sleek with a mountainous façade chipped into the right hand corner. Birds hadn’t shat on it yet and she grinned to herself, knowing what was to come.

They’ll regret choosing this place.

She blinked between the new stone and her late husband’s. Lorenzo Esposito 1922 – 2008. Nearly ten years since he’d passed and her heart tightened, more out of duty than of love, if she was truly being honest with herself. Ash fell from her cigarette and landed in the turned dirt beneath her.

And she realized it had been a long time since she’d seen even a photo of him. Sometimes - and she hated to admit it - she saw that dreadful stone rather than his face when she thought of him. She blinked, harder this time and sniffed, bending her arthritic knees until she was level with the new grave, until she couldn’t see Lorenzo’s plot. The new owners had begun to create a garden, complete with matching Micah blocks that cut a rectangle on the softened earth.

And a part of her hated it even more because she hadn’t thought to do that herself and now, people would come to expect it of her.

“Excuse me, can I help you?”

Her hearing wasn’t all bad, the voice reaching her eardrum through her cochlea in a tinny vibration, but she ignored it. Instead she focused on the dates embossed on the stone before her 1953 – 2016. Young. Around her son’s age.

Lorenzo, I will outlive them all.

“Excuse me,” the voice was louder now but not harsher. There was a quaver in it and Tina whipped her head around, eyes widened in surprise, her lips parting. This wasn’t the first time she’d acted. She leaned her cigarette-heavy hand against the grave for support.

“You scared me,” Tina said, eyes narrowed behind sun-darkened spectacles.

The person who stood before her was a girl. Not a child, no she must have been around the age of Tina’s granddaughters, maybe in college. Maybe graduated. Her blonde hair was tied back from her head, eyes watery and blue. Freckles lit her nose and cheeks.

Not Italian. Like her son’s wife. Not someone Tina wanted to get to know.

The girl stuttered. “Sorry, I just,” she bit her lip, crossing her arms in front of her chest and Tina stood up to her full height, only to find that the girl was in fact, taller than her.

“I’m old, you could have killed me,” she said.

The girl looked distressed now and she put her hands out, supplicant. “I didn’t mean to, it was just. That’s my father’s grave.”

Tina wanted to sneer at the girl. Forgiveness and most specifically, requesting it, had never held her attention.

“I know,” she said.

She could tell the girl regretted surprising her, that she was backpedaling. Tina moved aside slowly until she was just enough away from the new grave, making sure the girl noticed her arthritis, her calcified hands. The fact that she hadn’t felt young, hadn’t looked young in years.

The tension in the girl’s shoulders relaxed as her eyes flickered to the still unsprouted garden at the foot of the stone. A breeze pricked an errant hair from her face.

“I didn’t touch it,” Tina croaked.

“I didn’t say you did,” the girl replied. Her voice was drawn enough to match her face and for a moment, Tina wondered why she was there by herself. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Tina shrugged and turned from her, heading back to Lorenzo’s grave. She had a half a package’s worth of unsmoked Marlboros in her pocket and she reached for another. She took her time to light the tip, her eyes still trained on the girl.

Ignoring Tina, the girl bent down, arranging tools beside the makeshift garden. Tina wasn’t interested in her incompetence. She didn’t have to watch her. But her neck craned a bit forward as the girl bent beside the grave.

The girl had pulled on a pair of gloves and began to pick through the dirt, adjusting here and there, checking the status of buds (or frankly, lack thereof). She was an amateur green thumb.

And a part of Tina hoped that the garden would stand empty at the end of it all, that nothing would come of it, that it would just turn into a hardened patch of Earth, wind-blown and eroded or, better yet, overgrown with weeds and grass.

She only felt slightly bad for such thoughts and even though she hadn’t prayed in years, Tina closed her eyes to slits and folded her hands, cigarette still smoldering.

I hope you can’t see me Lorenzo, she thought. And if you can, I don’t smoke anymore. Just once in a while. Because you’re not here.

She didn’t know how long she stood there, waiting for the girl to finish but by the time the girl rose and wiped sweat from her forehead, the cigarette was barely smoking embers.

“Mind if I smoked with you?” the girl asked.

Tina stared at her for a beat before she reached into her crushed velvet jacket but the girl had already pulled a ziplock baggie from her own pocket. Tina watched as she pinched the paper in half around loose tobacco, licking the edge and rolling tight. She lit the tip with a red bic lighter.  

As slow as she possibly could, Tina returned her pack to its resting place.

The girl stood across from her, arms crossed, holding the cigarette expertly between her fingers.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Tina said.

“What?”

“Smoke,” she replied.

The girl’s eyes folded together. “You’re not my mom,” she replied.

“My granddaughters don’t even smoke and they’re your age,” Tina replied.

She watched as the girl took a long, thin drag, the tip pulsing gold. With equal gusto, the girl blew smoke over her shoulder.

“How many people in here died from lung cancer, you think?” the girl finally asked.

“I don’t have lung cancer,” Tina said and the girl rolled her eyes.

“Awful defensive for someone sneaking around someone else’s grave,” she said. “Just trying to make conversation.

Tina didn’t go for another. Self-control, perhaps. Instead, she watched the girl suck and pull at the thin oddly asymmetric roll.

“What did he die from?” the girl asked, gesturing at Lorenzo’s grave.

She had a funny way of never looking Tina directly in the eye, perhaps just above her head or to the side, as if at the pond behind her. And Tina knew she should have left minutes, hours, days ago but she couldn’t move her feet. It was almost like the loam beneath her had snaked its tendrils into her shoes.

“He was just old,” Tina replied.

And what she meant to say was, he decided he was ready to be separated from his body. The mind always went first. Even she wasn’t callous enough to say to the girl that she had watched him starve to death, that he had let each of his motor functions shut down into nothing because he wanted nothing.

Or perhaps he had wanted to be nothing. The greatest and most unattainable wish of all.

“As old as you?” the girl said.

Tina frowned. “I am not old,” she replied.

The girl shrugged. “My dad wasn’t old either. He was never going to be old anyway.”

Such an absurd girl. Such a dark girl, Tina stared at her, cigarette forgotten.

“Are you going to be buried with him?”

“You really think I’m going to die so soon?” Tina asked back.

The girl shrugged. “I mean, you’ve thought about it, haven’t you? How you want to die and where you want to go after. Everyone has.”

Not at this girl’s age, Tina thought. She’d been convinced that the end was so far away she wouldn’t see it until it was just upon her. That was how they were meant to live, weren’t they?

“Like, for example, I want to come back as a tree. Like in that greek myth about the two lovers that die and wind their roots together? Oak and Linden, I think they were. It’s just so romantic.”

There is nothing romantic about trees or death, Tina thought. Life needed to be separated from it because that was what happened when it came to an end. A before. An after. When those lines blurred, people began to believe imagined realities, other spaces they could excel in, just kept putting things off until after. Because, frankly, Tina knew that if there was an afterlife, she was headed to the hellish version.

It was advantageous for her not to believe it in the end.

“So what about you?”

“What?” Tina said. “I can’t hear very good.”

“Are you going to be buried next to your husband?”

It seemed like a logical question and Tina stared once more at Lorenzo’s resting site.

“There’s not much room,” she said, pointing to the girl’s father’s grave and the girl put her hands up in surrender.

“That wasn’t the question,” she replied.

Tina had only told one other person, her son, and it had been a move she’d done out of defiance, telling him what she wanted the rest of her money spent on at the end. Not her grandchildren. Not her family. Maybe her cat, but that was given that the cat would outlive her and frankly, few things had.

“I want a mausoleum,” Tina said. She had never wanted much that was material in the word. Her clothes were decades old. Her current apartment was paid for by her son. Nothing belonged to her.

The girl frowned. “So creepy.”

“No. It’s a house for the dead. For the honored dead.”

“So you want a status symbol?”

For some reason, the words angered Tina and she glared at the girl.

“No, I want a place to stay and rest where no one bothers me, where no one can walk over me. A place that everyone can see when they visit their loved ones below the earth. A place that is mine.”

The girl didn’t respond. Just smoked her cigarette down. Touched her father’s grave once and nodded at Tina.

“I wish you the best,” she said and it almost sounded like a eulogy in that Tina knew it wasn’t true. That the best was never offered those that were gone.

As Tina watched the girl’s pink vested back recede into the gloaming light, she felt a helplessness overtake her, a disgust at the sight of it. Not so much the actual existence of the image itself but its receding quality. The pain it left when it was gone. The air tainted by wild rose perfume and tobacco. By footprints that compressed eroding earth. By people who would come later and after her and think “I wonder how those littered beneath the gravestones lived.”

Even she, however, knew, that the living only thought of the dead in terms of themselves.

And she thought, “No, you will not have me yet.”

 

Salena Casha's work has appeared in over sixty publications. Her fiction has been included in Wigleaf's Top 50 Very Short Fictions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first three picture books are housed under the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing umbrella. Visit her website at www.salenacasha.com