In Light of Everything

Selective Focus Photography Of People Having A Toast

“Tell the dead baby story,” Sarah said, loudly, while accepting her drink from the waiter. He probably spoke no English and didn’t react. She didn’t care. She figured everyone else was talking about weird shit too in languages she couldn’t understand.

“Ummm… dead baby story?” Mike asked, he and Vanessa laughing a little nervously and sipping from their own cold glasses. It was obvious what they were thinking. In light of everything. Or maybe not. Maybe they were just thinking of their own kids and of the horrific implications of The Dead Baby Story. Maybe they were assessing how to be good friends right then for Tom and Sarah and considering how blasé to be.

“Are you sure?” Tom asked. “Isn’t it…?”
“Yeah,” Sarah answered. “It’s fine. It’s a good story. Tell it.” The four sat closely in a hard wooden booth in their

crowded neighborhood bar. Cigarette smoke and cold night air wafted in from outside. The loud, indecipherable voices around them were an ambient drone. There were a lot of foreigners like them at tables and wandering around the bar. Travelers and tourists, teachers and NGO do-gooders.

“OK, look,” Tom said, “I’m not trying to be a one-upper here, but I definitely have a crazy, dysfunctional family story to top yours.”

“And it involves a dead baby?” Mike asked.

Tom took a drink and replied, “Yeah, and then later on a dead grandma. Step-grandma. It’s basically a Faulkner novel.”

“And it happened the first time I met his whole family,” Sarah said.

“Sarah loves this story,” Tom said. “And I’ve perfected telling it by now.”

Sarah laughed a little too hard and said, “It’s creepy. And it makes me feel better about my own crazy family.”

“Her family has plenty of stories too, but they’re a little less ‘Midwest Gothic’ than mine.”

Vanessa laughed, “Ooh, I love crazy America stories. I feel like if I ever visit the US, I’ll be let down that it’s not all guns and violence all the time. It’ll probably be as boring as Canada.”

Mike emptied his beer and ordered another in a poor approximation of the local language from the waiter, who smiled and walked back to the bar to retrieve it. The place was now packed, everyone in the neighborhood having arrived as though through hypnotic suggestion at exactly 8:00. “OK, so I guess let’s hear the dead baby story.”

“Yeah. So,” Tom said, “it was Thanksgiving and we’d just gotten engaged and had gone to my parents’ house, and my whole extended family was going to be there. My grandparents are both dead now, but they were still alive then but were both old and pretty much out of their minds by that point. My grandma actually asked me how my flight was when we got there. I lived six miles away back then. She must’ve thought I was my older brother, who lived in San Francisco. I think I’d been erased from her memory by then. It’s not like we’d ever been that close anyway, so it didn’t really matter if she knew I wasn’t my brother. I just told her, ‘A little bumpy on the landing.’

“Both of my grandparents, my mom’s parents, were there, but they’d divorced when my mom was young and hadn’t seen each other in decades. I don’t remember how it worked out that they were both there that day. Maybe my mom set it up because of the engagement. My grandma was there with her second husband, and my grandpa was a widower by then and there alone.”

Sarah interrupted, “Tom’s grandfather was one of those old mall-walker guys who cruise around the shopping malls in the mornings and hit on the young girls who work in the stores and the food court. I knew who his grandpa was before we even met because I used to work at Sears. I remember him because he wore these crazy Hawaiian shirts and a Panama Jack hat.”

“Gross,” Vanessa said. “I remember those guys from my time in retail. They’re the ones who ask you if you have any Greek in you and then if you want some.”

“Writing that line down,” Mike said.

Tom continued the story, “Well… so somehow we ended up at the same table at my parents’ house with my grandma and her ex-husband, my grandpa. Yeah. Everyone had already fawned over the engagement ring and we’d taken all the pictures and now were sitting down to eat.”

“His mom’s a great cook,” Sarah said.

Tom sighed. “Then, like right in the middle of everyone eating, my grandmother turned to my grandfather and asked, ‘Where did we bury that baby that died that one time?’”

“Oh shit,” Mike said. “That’s some awkward dinner table conversation.”

Sarah smiled and then raised her eyebrows and sort of nodded her head at everyone as though affirming she’d been right about telling the story. Tom supposed this whole anecdote itself was awkward table conversation. But, drunk rules now. Whole different thing.

“That one time?” Vanessa asked.

Tom laughed and took another drink. “I know. That’s the part that really gets to me too. That one time. I’m not sure what I would have done if he’d replied, ‘Uhh…which time? You need to be more specific here. Listen, I buried a lot of babies over the years, and I can’t be expected to keep track of where they all ended up.’”

It was still early in the evening, but Tom was already a little drunk from some of the higher alcohol beers they’d ordered. He was dreading the morning hangover at work, but he didn’t have any real intention of slowing down. In light of everything, why not oblivion?

“What did you do?” Vanessa asked Sarah. “How do you even react to that?”

Tom answered for her, “Everyone just kind of kept eating uncomfortably. She looked over at me and mouthed ‘dead baby’. I sort of stared down at my plate and my mashed potatoes and stuffing or whatever. My grandfather finally broke the silence and answered pretty calmly, ‘Oh, uh, down there in Rogersville, which must’ve satisfied her curiosity because that was the end of the conversation.”

“No one else said a word about it,” Sarah said. “So weird.”

“We’ll return with the shocking conclusion after this brief word from our sponsors,” Tom said. Rising from the booth, he walked to the restroom, staggering just a little. He stood at the urinal and thought for a minute about how little emotional connection he had to this story he’d been telling or to the people in it, all family members, and how strange that was. He wasn’t even embarrassed by the story’s rural, provincial implications even though this was something he’d worked hard in life to transcend. He feigned a little bit of discomfort every time he told this story as a sort of rhetorical device for extra laughs, but truthfully he felt nothing at all. The main characters were dead now, and he felt no actual loss over that. Plus, the setting was unfamiliar now that he’d put half a planet between it and him.

He washed his hands at the sink and made a ridiculous face at himself in the mirror and laughed at his growing intoxication. He then pantomimed slamming his head into the mirror twice and left in a hurry when he noticed someone else was in the restroom.

Returning to the booth, he continued talking without bothering to discern whether or not the other three were in the middle of saying something. Of course they were; they hadn’t powered down when Tom left the table or sat in awestruck silence pondering how he’d left the story.

He said, “So I asked my mom about it later on. About the dead baby thing. She hadn’t heard anything at the time because she’d been sitting at a different table. She explained that her parents had lost a child, a son, a year or two after she was born. She was too young to remember the baby or anything about its birth or death. She said, ‘They were poor and lived on a farm in Rogersville. She probably gave birth at home and the baby died, so your grandpa buried it out back or down near the family plot.’ I guess that was fairly common for country people at the time.”

“The dead baby was her brother. Your uncle,” Vanessa said. “That’s really sad.”

Tom said, “She ended up with three half-brothers and a half-sister. Maybe she never knew the difference. Or felt the absence. Let’s order another round.”

Sarah caught Tom’s eyes. He wondered what she might be trying to communicate and wondered how much Mike and Vanessa could pick up on, but he couldn’t hold her gaze and instead looked down to continue his story. Some things were still too recent and too raw.

“The dead baby’s name was Clifford. Clifford Lee. Near the end of her life, when my grandma was lucid, which was rare, she talked a lot about changing her will. My sisters and I certainly weren’t getting anything as the grandsons of her ex- husband, but maybe she meant that she would leave some money to my mom rather than giving everything to the kids from her second marriage, my aunts and uncles. She and my step-grandpa had a lot of money, but they were never interested in us or in her old life. They took my cousins — half cousins, I guess — to Disney World on vacation every year, but they never invited my sisters and me. Anyway, my grandma was so confused at the end of her life we joked that everything in the will would probably go to Clifford.”

“That’s kind of messed up,” Mike laughed. “So how does a dead stepmom figure into the story?”

Sarah laughed loudly. She was getting drunk too. In light of everything, this was their first real night out in a while. Neither of them could hold their alcohol like they used to. Maybe that was at least an upside. Drunkenness was a far shorter path.

Tom said, “Oh yes, the dead step-grandmother story. When my grandparents divorced, they both eventually remarried. I never met the second wife, the step-grandmother. I don’t even know what her name was. I think she was Canadian. Maybe not. She wasn’t interested either in his previous life or in his daughter, so he quickly disappeared from my mom’s life. I think I only saw him once or twice before the wife died when I was 9 or 10. I remember one year he showed up with a strange Christmas present for me: a bunch of plain white handkerchiefs in a metal tin that looked like a Coca-Cola vending machine. I was probably eight or nine. I threw away the handkerchiefs, but I think the vending machine ended up outside of Castle Grayskull for my He-Man action figures to use. It was the right size.”

“Mastering the universe can work up a mean thirst,” Mike said.

Tom went on, “After his second wife died, he was more of a presence but not much more. He showed up for a couple Christmases. He sent birthday cards sometimes months before or after our actual birthdays. When he died five or six years ago, my mom inherited everything, which amounted to an apartment packed full of decades of hoarding. A lot of old, twangy country records and a ton of junk from the dollar store.

“So, I guess my dad was helping my mom go through of my grandfather’s stuff, basically throwing away or donating everything. They had his car parked at their house, and my dad was going through the trunk, which was also full of years of junk. In the process, he found…”

“Oh god,” Vanessa said. “Please say he didn’t find the wife’s dead body.”

“You mean like 20-some years later and mummified? With fingernail scratch marks on the underside of trunk lid? No. Not exactly. Not that bad. He found a cardboard box, and, on it, printed with one of those old sticker label makers with that spinning alphabet dial, was the name of my step- grandma. Inside was a plastic bag full of her ashes. It had been there since the 80s.”

“Wow,” Mike said. “That’s being a hoarder alright. That’s definitely more than a huge collection of National Geographics.”

Tom said, “So, after opening the box, my dad, tactless as always, yelled from the garage into the house, ‘Honey! I found your stepmom out here in the trunk.’ Naturally, my mom came running out expecting some horror movie scene. Some grayish corpse with still growing hair and nails.”

“Not nice,” Vanessa said. “I’d have to kill him.”

“Well, that was pretty in character for him. She had many reasons to kill. When I was a kid, she often threatened to murder him. There was a Farrah Fawcett movie at the time called The Burning Bed about a woman who burns her abusive husband to death he’s sleeping. When my mom was mad at my dad, she used to yell ‘The Burning Bed!’ I think it was meant to be playful, though.”

From there, it all got a little blurry. They drank more and, Tom was sure, told more stories, eventually wobbling home to their nearby apartments. Tom remembered that they laughed a lot and then they stopped. At some point Mike suggested that Tom and Sarah should come over sometime soon for dinner, just the four of them plus the new baby, which, he hoped, wouldn’t be awkward in light of everything. Tom laughed and asked if there was anything strange at their place like a pet peacock roaming around, and everybody laughed and said they had no idea what he was talking about. He couldn’t explain.

When they got home, Sarah fell into bed immediately asleep, which lately had been her routine. Tom sat on the couch, where he would no doubt sleep, guzzling massive amounts of water to stave off the morning’s inevitable reckoning. He got into some leftover takeout and ate it unpalatably cold.

With the room spinning slightly, his thoughts drifted to family. In light of everything, it made sense. He thought of his mother, disconnected from her parents now long gone. He thought of his mother still living but on the other side of the world back in the US and resolved to call her in the morning. He didn’t keep in touch often enough, and when he did things we often short and perfunctory. Or long and painful. He probably wouldn’t call his father, who would complain about the lag in connection or the static and then immediately start looking for an exit strategy to get off the phone.

In his final heavy-lidded recollections of the night, he thought of Sarah and himself childless, presumably having broken the family curse yet somehow cursed anyway. Cursed differently. He thought of nonexistent children and of disturbing stories that wouldn’t be told generations from now drunkenly by his grown offspring in loud and crowded pubs somewhere far off in the world. And of how terrible tomorrow would likely feel but how good the couch felt now. And how sleep now seemed a type of hedonism in which, in light of everything, he would happily indulge.

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