What It’s Like to Be Poisoned
Clara had resigned herself, for much of the afternoon, at the kitchen table in the seat closest to the larger windows that overlooked her aunt’s lavish garden that she’d been tending fastidiously since early Spring, and despite the rains she persevered. The garden rested at the base of the stone patio where many of the other guests were found sipping their drinks and consoling the gardener, sitting by the dry birdbath in the form of Eros, grieving over her son. Clara sipped from a glass of ginger ale as the bartender in the living room was not convinced that she was twenty-three and she just happened to not have any ID on her, the fact that her cousin was shot in his own backyard did little to sway the ethics of the callous server. An array of thoughts burst in her brain like a fireworks finale, but it was the little ones she tried to occupy herself with. Such as, what if her skirt was, in fact too short, as her father put it, and if so, how could she hide it? She couldn’t help but think of the bigger, existential things every now and then as the guests behind her, locals no doubt, were dealing with them in their own way, Clara just wished it wouldn’t be so loud.
The two guests were standing at the sink. Both looked relatively similar. Both were black-ladden, both were at least of middle-age, both were distastefully bejeweled, but the only difference was that one’s body was expanding while the other’s was contracting.
“That is such a beautiful urn don’t you think?” said the expanding woman.
“Well you must admit,” the contracting woman interjected, “the family always had exceptional taste when it came to death.”
“I suppose that’s commendable.”
“Well it comes in handy. Had Ron’s father had his way, he’d have been buried in a teal casket.”
The expanding woman gasped.
“I mean I know it’s a virtue to be modest and everything. It’s nice, it really is, but there’s no need to drag anyone through the mud any further with it.”
“You know,” added the rather tipsy husband of the contracting woman, “I read somewhere that cremation is a hazard to the environment.”
“Oh stop it Arnie, not here,” his skin and bones spouse said, “that’s so inappropriate.”
“Where did you read that Arnie?” inquired the expanding lady.
“Oh, a Green issue of something. Possibly Men’s Vogue.”
“Oh, Men’s Vogue, interesting.”
“Please don’t encourage him.”
“Well I just don’t understand is all.”
“It’s kind of complicated,” Arnie said, “I think part of it is due to the length that it takes for the corpse to burn.”
“Oh, I see.”
“And if the corpse was being burned with clothing on.”
“This is disgusting,” the contracting lady said, putting her head in her well-manicured hand. In addition she muttered, “Why the fuck do I think about sleeping with you?”
“Did Derrick have clothes on when he was cremated?”
“Yes,” the contracting woman said, “the ones he died in to be exact.”
“That’s what Gloria told me.”
“How did they get them back from the police?”
“Well Ron was a prominent figure on the Board of Ed. for some time now.”
Just then, Clara had made the conscious decision to leave the kitchen and see what she could do to acquire a rum and coke.
“He’ll probably resign his post,” commented Arnie as Clara passed them.
“Just as well,” his wife said, “it’s not in the best interest of the district if a Board member with a dead child is making decisions for living ones.”
The living room was bubbling with the perky conversations, seemingly having nothing to do with the event at hand, of the other strangers who claimed any sort of light connection to her aunt and uncle. Peculiar to her previous experiences being in their house, she could not remember a time when they let anyone smoke, even outside. However, in this case it seems that exceptions were made. Clara could not weave from one cliquish circle to the next without at least one verbose member getting his words mangled by a thick Dominican-made cigar. There was at least one woman uncharacteristically — for this particular area anyway —smoking one among a gaggle of other young wives and mothers who had changed into white spring dresses in between the memorial and the party. Attached to the women’s form-fitting black skirt was presumably her child looking away from the circle, his blood vessels swelling from under his face from repeated hacking under her mother’s tobacco cloud.
Clara’s father came out from within the crowd along with the Reverend who had overseen the ceremony earlier in the morning for which her father was lavishing praise upon him. The Reverend was fresh-faced and handsome in his plainclothes, a brown blazer and blue sweater over a white shrit. There was talk that he was new and it was apparent that he was shaken by inexperience over dealing with such a flood of violent grief. Clara approached them daintily but was hardly noticed amidst the conversation.
“It was a beautiful ceremony, Reverend, very, uh, sanctimonious I guess.”
“Well, it’s never easy when these things happen to a family in such a small community. Your sister is a good woman and her children deserve every bit a pristine memorial as any other person in a position like hers.”
“If only the reception was held in the church, these home proceedings are so,” the Reverend paused to find the exact, most inoffensive critical language, “course.”
“Well, it is a lovely home, you make a good point though, but only because I don’t think Robbie ever spent much time here.”
“If he were a different person I could have seen him as a formidable youth leader.”
Clara interjected quickly, “Daddy?”
“Oh, hello,” her father said, “Reverend have you met Robbie’s big cousin, Clara?”
“No I certainly haven’t,” relied the Reverend warmly.
“Hello,” Clara said, gently nodding.
“I’m truly sorry for your loss, as I was telling your father I didn’t see much of him but when I did I saw potential for some great things. Now how old was he again?”
“He was going to be seventeen in August.”
“Oh, dear,” the Reverend shook his head, “not yet able to drive, was that his car I saw out by the curb?” he added referring to the black Mercedes.
“Uhm, no actually that’s Caitlin’s. She was originally supposed to get the car but she didn’t like it for several reasons, some obvious and some not, and traded it in for a more recent model.”
“Oh I see, and he wasn’t looking at schools?”
“Well he and Miranda stayed over at my place on their way to Penn State Wilkes-Barre, but that’s all I can think of as far as that goes.”
“Oh,” the Reverend briefly added.
“But Clara here just transferred over to Vassar, she just finished her first semester there, isn’t that right?” he said putting his arm around her thin shoulders.
“Where did you go originally?”
“I don’t believe I’ve heard of that one, but Vassar must be a fresh change of pace, eh?”
“It’s not what I thought it’d be,” she said. “But it’s nice enough.”
“Oh she loves it,” he gave her a pat on the back.
The Reverend genteelly excused himself to be with her aunt but not before extending his sympathies once more to both of them and again commenting on Clara’s modern, but classic feminine composure, to which her cousin could take note in and out of the scope of trying obstacles.
“Dad, maybe you should lay off the Vassar talk, at least for today.”
“Why should I?”
“Or maybe tell people the truth?”
“Let’s not talk about these things now, perhaps on the ride home. I will be in the den with some people.”
“Never mind that, your uncle is over there,” he pointed to the leather armchair in the corner by the fireplace where he was sitting. “You should talk to him, he’s been a bit of a pill for most of the weekend.”
“I could only imagine why,” she said with a bitter smirk.
“Don’t be fresh, maybe you can cheer him up,”
Clara’s uncle sat upright and cross-legged in the armchair. He was not thick, but under his white shirt his chest and stomach formed smooth, prominent slopes. He never lost any of the more sculpted features of his face which was made up of a well-shaped jaw, hollow cheeks, a full head of black hair, well-kept off-white teeth with no apparent evidence of ever having them filled, drilled or rooted and gums that never bled. His low-key hazel eyes and thin smile were most pleasant of all for Clara who’d seen him as a level-headed, fair uncle and not an excessive irresponsible one. She was surprised to see that same warming smile and contented gaze as she approached him. She’d called his name twice before he’d come out of his tranquil meditation.
“Oh, Clara, what’s up?” His eyes darted in all directions around the room as if he had trouble setting his eyes on Clara.
“Would you like to get me a drink at the bar?” she said. “I forgot my ID and they think I’m fifteen or something like that.”
“I thought this would be an open bar.”
“I need a drink as well, join me?”
“Certainly.” She smiled gleefully.
Clara gauged that the bartender was no older than she was and might have been more open to serving without carding perhaps if times were a little more festive. He was wearing a white shirt, black bow tie and a red vest, on his right arm was a black armband.
“Mr. Salzar,” replied stiffly.
“Can you get me a Gibson?”
“And how about a Dr. Pepper for my niece.”
“Oh, this is Clara?”
“Ron, I — ”
“Don’t worry Clara I got it,” he assured, “yes this is her.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Well she has her dad’s looks.”
“Apparently,” Greg said. “I’ll see what I can do about those drinks, Mr. Salzar, just gimme a minute, will you?”
“Take your time,” he smiled more gallantly and gave him an informal two-fingered salute. He looked over at Clara who had transitioned further into her youthful glumness.
“Oh, no, I’m … trying to take it all in I suppose.”
“I understand, it’s been hard on all of us. There hasn’t been a death in a long time in this family, at least in my side.”
“No it’s pretty much the same over on mine.”
“Wasn’t there a grandmother somewhere in there a while or so ago?”
“Great actually,” she corrected, “but we hardly liked her so she was swept aside very soon.”
“So it goes I guess.”
“So, you told the bartender about me?” she said in a casual whisper.
“Oh, yeah, it was only casual in mentioning. You see Greg here used to date Caitlin for a little bit,” he turned to Greg and snickered, “ain’t that right, buddy?”
Greg, with gin in hand nodded back.
“She’s a nice girl isn’t she? I mean for one you don’t see too often.”
“She’s a dear, as my mom would put it,” she chuckled.
Ron chuckled in return. “You two seemed, I don’t know, different in some respects.”
“Well sure, that’s how some cousin’s go I guess.”
“I am sorry though.”
“Sorry for what?” she said. I don’t understand.”
The conversation stalled briefly when Greg informed Ron that he had run out of pearl onions.
“Better just make it gin than, Greg.” Greg nodded and went back to preparing the drink.
“Anyway, I’m sorry for Caitlin.”
“What about her?”
“I thought it was fine, beautiful in fact.”
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said sourly, “it was a piece of shit. She’s a terrible writer.”
“Well, not everyone is gifted, Ron. Sure Caitlin has her weaknesses, but grief doesn’t have a set language.”
“Grief?” Ron’s tone became steadily more bitter. “Who’s talking about grief? She grieved for about five seconds after she found his body. I tell you that car blazed clear through her head when she saw he wasn’t breathing.”
Clara inched away from Ron only slightly. Anytime during his aside that she would visibly wince she would keep out of sight and felt, in the best possible courtesy, to let the rant about his only living child go on, which was beginning to show signs of fizzling out in mere seconds.
“Anyway, it just could have been done better. I’m not saying I would have written that kind of dedication because I can’t.”
“Maybe you can help her.”
“I don’t see how I can.”
“Well, she’s applied to NYU, nothing specific mind you, but if you can convince her to go with a more practical major, one suiting her abilities, that would be great,” he said. “What are the big majors over there?”
“I don’t know.”
“I thought you transferred there.”
“Oh, right, Vassar.”
“It doesn’t matter though, I left.”
“If you must.”
“I felt I should, before I made anymore mistakes.”
“What do you plan on doing?”
“I’m taking a community class until I figure those things out.”
“Nonfiction writing actually,” she chuckled.
“Good,” Ron said with that thin smile making a welcome return, “good.”
Greg appeared again with the drinks.
“No tip,” said Greg.
“I wouldn’t think of it,” Ron replied, seemingly half-serious, if not more and gave another salute.
“To Derrick?” said Clara holding up her drink.
“Certainly, to Derrick.” They clinked their small glasses, Clara moved the thin, black straw out over her way and drank straight from the glass. Ron downed a good portion of his gin and gagged instantly.
“Something wrong?” Clara said trying not to laugh.
“Now I know why I drink this mixed.” She released her chuckle. “How’s yours.”
“It’s fine, but I was more into a rum and coke.”
“What did he get you?”
“What you said, a Dr. Pepper.”
“He gave you a soda? What an idiot.” He called Greg over. “Hey buddy, you won’t win any favors with me if you don’t listen.”
“I’m sorry, is there a problem?”
“I asked you to get the lady a Dr. Pepper, not a Dr. Pepper.”
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