SHORT STORY CONTEST
DEATH BY ALMOND BUTTER
by Michael Golder
Irène takes a fresh jar of almond butter from the cabinet. It’s organic and non-GMO and has an inviting label with a charming story about the almond-butter-making process by a small, employee-owned business with good values. But Irène doesn’t read the label. She doesn’t have to. She knows the almond butter is progressive and artisanal because everything in the goddamn house is progressive and artisanal and that’s one reason—at 13—she wants to die. Irène is not artisanal. Artisanal is way too precious and privileged for Irène. It makes her want to gag. She thinks, Wake up, America! We don’t have time for artisanal! There’s war! Injustice! Climate change! Irène may be only 13, but she is worldly, perhaps even woke (she’ll have to google that again). She has worldly, possibly woke parents with fulfilling, well-paying jobs, parents who love her, who are patient with her quirks and foibles as she battles adolescent demons. But their love and patience are not enough to save her. For one thing, it was her parents who, unforgivably, saddled her with the God-awful name “Irène.” What were they thinking? Are they French? No, they are not French. There’s not a French bone anywhere in the family going back generations to when an enterprising ancestor oozed out of the primordial shtetl and onto a ship that cast him ashore in the New World where he clawed and scraped and one day, miraculously, opened a dry-goods store. The rest is history. No French anywhere. So what if her parents “made” her, so the story goes, on a romantic Parisian holiday. Yeech to that, Irène thinks. Ill-conceived her is more like it. Irène has hated her name since the day she first mispronounced it.
“Not Eye-Reen,” her mother gently corrected, “Ear-ren, like your adorable little ears and the cute little wrens in the backyard.”
Ears and wrens notwithstanding, to everyone except her parents, including Irène herself, she is simply Irene. Stripped of its Frenchness, it’s a name that, to Irène, evokes not much—a domestic worker, a home health aide, a line cook. Irène thinks it’s a frumpy name and if she allows herself to grow up, she fears it will aptly describe her. Yet another reason to end it all.
The question was how. None of the usual methods—gun, pills, gas, hanging, razors—appealed to her. A gun was out of the question. Though America was supposedly awash in guns, Irène had never actually seen one, and even though she understood gun laws in the United States to be exceedingly lax, she didn’t think anyone would sell a gun to a 13-year-old without, at the very least, a note from her parents. Fat chance of that happening with her parents who found squirt guns unacceptably violent. Also, Irène abhorred loud noises. An ear-splitting BANG! as a bullet tore through her skull and splattered her brains everywhere had zero appeal, plus it was totally out of character for a girl who prided herself on neatness. Pills were out. She could manage the odd pill but disliked taking them because they always got stuck in her craw, as her dad would say, which when she was little sounded to her like “caw” and made her think her father had a crow caught in his throat. She wouldn’t have known where to begin with gas, science being her worst subject in school. Hanging was tempting, but she was all thumbs with knots. Razor blades were a non-starter as even the tiniest paper cut gave her the willies.
In the end, Irène settled on almond butter as the instrument of her demise, an unorthodox method, she knew, but Irène loved almond butter’s creamy, sweet nuttiness. It had, in the parlance of her parents, great mouthfeel. If she was going to end it all, Irène figured she might as well enjoy it.
* * *
About half-way through the jar of almond butter, Irène begins to feel like Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, a movie she wasn’t supposed to watch because her mother said it was “too grim.” Irène understands that almond butter lacks the badass cachet of alcohol, but she had dismissed drinking herself to death because she doesn’t like the taste of alcohol, though she once pretended to with the wrong kind of kids. From that painful experience she learned that if she drinks just one beer, she’ll puke and not die but definitely want to die. The memory of her mother stroking her head and murmuring, “There you go, honey,” as she emptied her guts into the toilet was still humiliating, doubly so because while in the throes of retching, Irène had thought she detected a note of amusement in her mother’s voice. Her parents hadn’t even punished her.
“I think you’ve been punished enough,” her mother had said. “There’s beer in the fridge,” her father added. “Help yourself.”
Irène could cover her body in ink, pierce every last appendage, even get one of those gross gauges, and her parents would just exchange their “we were young once” look and smile at her with eyes that cut to the bone, that saw things she herself could not see, might never see, because they had made her.
Irène spoons another gob of almond butter out of the jar. She brings the spoonful to her mouth and dutifully opens. She is long past enjoying this. Many spoonfuls ago the almond butter began to taste like paste. It’s all she can do to keep it down. But there’s no turning back. This will show them how little they know their Irène. She shovels spoonful after spoonful into her mouth, forcing herself to swallow each sticky blob. Dying is taking longer than she anticipated, but there are signs that the process is underway. Her tongue is tired and sore and feels like it’s grown a coat of fur. The roof of her mouth seems to be forming stalactites. Her skin is clammy and her stomach is making disturbing, earth-moving sounds. She pictures the mysterious mechanics of her body gradually grinding to a halt.
Feeling queasy, Irène places the near-empty jar on her nightstand. She needs a breather and takes a moment to admire her suicide note. As her last communication with the world, it had to be just right. After many drafts Irène had whittled her note down to a single perfect word: “Enough.” Looking at it now, scrawled in red across a page of notebook paper with a fine-point Sharpie, Irène is pleased by the note’s simple elegance. She also thinks the notebook paper was an excellent choice as it underscores her youth and innocence, thereby imparting an added poignancy to her tragic death. It suggests, Irène hopes, that she is too pure for a cruel world where parents think they know everything and flat-chested girls rarely get asked to dance.
Irène scrapes the remaining almond butter from the jar and somehow manages to swallow it without choking. She lies on her bed in her peach, kimono-style bathrobe, her tattered, stuffed Sesame Street character Snuffleupagus—Snuffy—in the crook of her arm. She knows she’s too old to sleep with a stuffed animal, but hell, it’s her last night on earth. She turns off the lamp, folds her arms across her chest, rests her head on the soft, white pillow and waits for death.
* * *
When she wakes in the morning Irène is disappointed to discover she is still alive.
Her disappointment is short-lived, though, as her attention is quickly drawn to the shocking pain in her stomach. She clutches her belly, marveling a bit at this riot of hurt in her tummy. This is more than she bargained for. She expected suicide to entail discomfort, but this? Was she giving birth? Was a jar of almond butter about to spring from her loins? Possibly twin jars of almond butter?
Three sharp raps on her door. Mom’s signature knock.
“Irène? Honey? Get up, sweetie, you’ll be late.”
“I’m dying . . . .” moans Irène.
“What? Honey, are you all right?”
“Nnnnn . . . .”
“Honey? May I come in?” Mom waits a full two seconds, respecting boundaries, before announcing, “I’m coming in.”
“Irène!” Mom says, aghast at the sight of her daughter, her only child, doubled over in pain. “What the fuck?!”
Though in agony, Irène notes with satisfaction that Mom dropped the F-bomb. This is good, she thinks. This means she’s being taken seriously.
“Irène, what is it?!”
“My stomach . . . .”
“What about your stomach?”
“Hurts . . . .”
“Noooooo . . . .”
“Irène . . . .”
“I can’t . . . .”
Irène rolls onto her side.
“Let me see,” Mom says, pushing Irène onto her back.
Irène submits to probing maternal hands.
“Where does it hurt?”
“What’s that?” Mom points her chin toward the jar on the nightstand.
“Almond butter,” says Irène, without looking.
“What’s it doing up here?” Mom asks.
“I had some,” Irène says.
Mom leans across the bed and reaches for the jar, dislodging the suicide note, which flutters to the floor.
“Irène, this jar is empty.”
Irène offers a Gallic shrug, in keeping for once with her name.
“What have you done, Irène?”
“Nu—thinnngg . . . .” she whines.
“Irène . . . .”
“Leave me alone!”
“This was a brand new jar, not even opened.”
Mom holds up the jar accusingly. “You ate all this?”
“I tried to kill myself.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Ha, ha, I fucked up,” Irène says, turning her back to her mother.
“You said ‘fuck,’ Irène says, playing that card much sooner than she expected.
Mom lets it slide. “You tried to kill yourself,” she says.
“With almond butter.” Irène nods.
Mom retrieves the note that fell to the floor. “Enough,” she reads.
“My suicide note.”
“Enough? Enough what?”
“Enough of everything! Life! School! Being the only girl in 8th grade without boobs—”
“We’ve talked about that—”
“Enough of YOU!” Irène rolls onto her stomach and buries her face in her pillow.
“Enough of this,” Mom says briskly. “Get dressed.”
“I can’t,” Irène mumbles into the pillow. “My stomach . . . hurts!”
Mom studies the back of her daughter’s head. She would like to grab a fistful of Irène’s hair and yank it so hard that all the idiotic stunts rattling around her brain would tumble out her eyes and die. Mom resists the temptation. She looks at the empty jar of almond butter and sighs.
“All right. Stay home. Drink a lot of water. I mean a lot.”
“Honestly, Irène, the whole jar?”
Mom pockets the note, picks up the jar. “I have to get to work.”
Irène nods into the pillow.
“Look at me.”
With a supreme effort, Irène lifts her head. She sees the tears welling in Mom’s eyes.
“Irène, suicide is no joke.”
“I mean it. It’s nothing to play at.”
Irène nods. “Sorry.”
“And stop worrying about your boobs—”
“Not now, please,” Irène says wearily. She turns back to the pillow and burrows in.
Mom bends to kiss her daughter’s head. “Drink a lot of water,” she says, again. “Go to the bathroom. You’ll feel better.”
“Okay,” says Irène.
“Call if you need me.” Mom pets Irène’s greasy hair, then absently wipes her hand on her robe.
Irène hears the bedroom door click shut. She waits a few moments, listening for any second-party breathing—her mother can be tricky—then rolls onto her back. She stares at the ceiling, pulls Snuffy on top of her and hugs him to her chest. She puts a thumb in her mouth then quickly takes it out. She no longer wants to die, but if she should die—and the pain is so bad she might—she doesn’t want to be found with her thumb in her mouth. What she wants now, more than anything in the world, is to take a giant almond butter shit.
* * *
But it doesn’t come. Not this day. Or the next. Or the day after. The consensus is that Irène has a serious case of constipation, which stands to reason given the pound of almond butter lodged in her stomach. Apparently, rather than keeping things running smoothly, too much fiber can gum up the works, and almond butter is loaded with fiber. Irène has endured two enemas, been plied with laxatives, drunk gallons of water and still nothing, not so much as a whispered fart.
Of growing concern to her parents is Irène’s utter disregard for her phone. This month’s BFF, who has brought Irène’s assignments to the house every day, but whom their daughter refuses to see in her “nasty” state, has allowed that Irène has not returned any of the girl’s texts or calls. It is one thing for Irène to ignore her assignments, which she has, but to ignore her phone is quite another matter. A digital disengagement of this magnitude is simply unheard of. To Mom and Dad this aberrant behavior suggests that their daughter’s condition may be more dire than they thought. It has them tossing around bowel syndromes like a pair of jugglers. Obstructed bowel, irritable bowel, dysfunctional bowel, all these syndromes flying around are making Irène dizzy. What’s worse, the loathsome word “hospital” has come up with alarming frequency. The hospital! Irène’s dread of the hospital is boundless. The tubes and wires, the blinking machines, the horrid patient gowns that leave you half-naked like a slab of salmon, it’s her vision of hell. She pleaded for more time, and her parents acquiesced.
“No pressure, honey,” Mom said. “But we can’t wait forever,” Dad said.
“That sounds like pressure,” Irène said.
“She’s right,” Mom said. “That does sound like pressure.”
“Okay, strike that from the record,” Dad said. “But, you know, hurry up.”
Now, at the end of another day, Irène lies in bed with a fever, alternately sweating and freezing, her insides balled up like a fist. She fears that her suicide attempt, though dismissed by her parents as childish “acting out,” might actually be working.
“Please, God,” she prays, newly interested in a Supreme Being, “let me go to the bathroom and I’ll, I’ll . . . .” She wonders what she could possibly offer God, who she assumes has everything. She plumbs her heart for a worthy sacrifice. “Keep them,” she finally tells God, ready to give up her future, long-hoped-for breasts in exchange for one solid, cathartic dump.
Three sharp raps on the door cut short her appeal to the Almighty.
“Go away!” shrieks Irène.
“We’re coming in,” says Mom. “Nooo!” says Irène.
But in they come, mother and father, their worry leavened by a determination to fix her.
“Anything?” asks Mom. Irène shakes her head.
“Maybe another enema?” Mom suggests.
“You are not putting that thing up my butt!” says Irène.
“Honey . . . .”
“What’s that?” asks Irène, pointing to a fancy bag her father holds.
“Glad you asked,” Dad says. He opens the bag with great ceremony, like a hammy magician about to conjure a flock of doves, and extracts a single, juicy prune. “Eat this,” he says, offering the prune with a flourish.
Irène glances at the wrinkled, dark-purple orb in her father’s palm. “I don’t like prunes,” she sniffs.
“But these are pruneaux d’Agen,” Dad says. “The best prunes in the world.” “They sound French,” says Irène, plainly disgusted.
“Mais oui,” Dad says.
Irène executes a well-practiced eye roll. “The only things I like from France are the fries and the kisses,” says Irène, who has vast knowledge of the former and virtually none of the latter.
“As you know,” Dad says, forging ahead, prunes are famous for their purgative properties.”
Dad looks to Mom for an assist.
“Shit inducing,” Mom says.
Dad nods. This is no time to mince words. “Exactly,” he says, and thrusts the bag of prunes into his daughter’s hands.
“I don’t think so,” says Irène. She tries to hand back the prunes, but Dad presses them back on her. They play this back and forth game until Irène just lets the bag drop beside her on the bed.
“Let me tell you how good these prunes are,” Dad says. “In olden days, a dashing young Frenchman would woo the girl of his dreams with these prunes to win her heart.”
Despite disliking the word “woo” and her hatred of almost all things French, Irène’s heart does a little flip. She quickly recovers. “Did he wrap them in toilet paper?”
“I don’t think they had toilet paper,” Dad says.
“Jeezus, Tom,” says Mom, executing an expert eye roll of her own. “Just try one, honey.”
“No, thank you.”
“Would you rather go to the hospital?”
“No fair!” says Irène. “That’s blackmail!”
“No, honey, it’s coercion,” Mom says, always on the lookout for the teachable moment. “Your choice.”
“Still no fair!” Irène protests, but she pulls a prune from the bag and eyes it suspiciously.
“Taste it,” Mom says.
Grudgingly, Irène takes a bite. As she chews, her scorn gives way to surprise. “Wow,” she says. “This is actually good. So sweet.”
“Told you,” Dad says.
“Eat them all,” Mom says.
“All?” Irène inspects the contents of the bag. “There’s like a pound of prunes in here.”
“You ate a pound of almond butter,” Mom says. “You need to counter that with a pound of prunes.”
Irène pulls another prune from the bag, gazes at it hopefully. “I can’t remember what it feels like to poop.”
“These will work,” Dad says. “You’ll see.”
“Call if you need us,” Mom says, as she and Dad edge out of the room. “Bon appétit.”
They close the door behind them, leaving Irène to gorge on the prunes. She chews and chews until her jaw begins to ache. When she can’t cram another prune into her mouth, she grabs Snuffy with her sticky hands and squeezes him between her thighs. She rolls onto her side and gives the stuffed animal a few comforting grinds then closes her eyes, ready to drift off to sleep, or to the toilet, or to death, whichever comes first.
* * *
Around 4:00 a.m., in the stillness of her bedroom, strange gurgling sounds wake Irène. She can’t immediately locate their source, but soon realizes that she is the source, that the sounds are coming from her stomach. She places a hand on her belly. The pain she has suffered for days is, if possible, even worse. But something inside her has shifted. Some major infrastructure project seems in progress. Irène hurriedly slides out of bed.
With one hand holding Snuffy, the other pressed against her stomach, she lurches down the dark hallway to the bathroom. This is it! she thinks. Thank you, Jesus! Vive la France! Irène flicks on the bathroom night-light, sparing her sleepy eyes from the shock of the bright ceiling light. The weak two-watts cast a soft, inviting glow on the toilet. Irène settles onto the toilet seat like a hen. She waits. She senses that something momentous is about to happen, something epic in the history of bowel movements. Nervously, she pulls Snuffy to her chest. From out of nowhere, she wonders what it would be like to breast feed a baby. She looks into Snuffy’s warm, button-eyes and sees that the doll needs to nurse. She draws Snuffy to her nipple and imagines her baby nursing.
And then it begins.
A blinding cramp strikes Irène so hard she drops Snuffy. She grips her stomach and doubles over. Beads of cold sweat sprout on her forehead. She hunches down over her knees and lifts her ass slightly off the toilet, like a jockey on a racehorse. She hovers there, an inch or two above the toilet, as this massive thing begins to emerge from deep inside her. It’s too much, she thinks, but she can’t stop what’s happening. Bolts of pain ripple up her spine and down her thighs. Prickly goosebumps carpet her skin. She presses hard on her stomach and prays she doesn’t split apart.
“OH GOD!!” cries Irène. She rises to a full squat over the toilet and bears down. Her eyes squeeze shut; her face corkscrews. “OH FUCK!!” she screams, as this shitbeast blasts out of her.
Exhausted, limp, soaked in sweat, Irène finds herself on the bathroom floor. She can’t move, but a pleasing warmth washes over her. And then, like signals from a distant galaxy, she grows aware of the knocks and voices.
“Irène!? Irène are you all right!?”
Too shattered to offer a human response, Irène makes a sound a small animal might make as it’s flattened by a passing truck. To her parents, it’s a sound that calls for storming the bathroom door.
“IRÈNE!!” they yelp at the sight of their crumpled daughter. Mom rushes to Irène and lays her head in her lap. “Irène, darling, what is it, what happened?” Dad runs cold water over a washcloth. He folds it into a neat rectangle and places it on his daughter’s forehead. “Did you fall?” he asks. “Are you hurt?”
Sensitive to odors, Mom catches a whiff of sweetness in the air. She looks around and with a start, glimpses the beast in the toilet. “Tom,” she says quietly. When her husband looks up, she gives a quick nod toward the toilet.
“Holy shit!” Dad says, his eyes widening in horror and not a little fascination. “Look at the size of it!”
“I know,” Mom says. “Impressive.”
“That’s more than impressive,” Dad says. “That’s downright freakish!”
“I’m not dead, you know,” says Irène, beginning to rally. “I can hear you.”
Irène’s parents, who have been mesmerized by the enormous shit, turn to their daughter, seeming for a moment to have difficulty placing her.
“Are you okay?” Dad asks.
“My ass hurts like hell,” says Irène. “Otherwise, I feel great, like I’m floating in space.”
“I’ve never seen a shit that big,” Dad says, looking back at the toilet. “I mean, from a human.”
“Tom!” says Mom.
“It’s okay,” says Irène. “I can’t believe that came out of me.”
Her parents look at her, look at the shit, nod dumbly.
“Smells like peanut butter,” Dad says.
“Almond butter,” Mom says. “With notes of prune.”
Dad reaches over and presses the flush lever on the toilet. Water eddies and sloshes around the giant shit, but it doesn’t budge. After the water drains, the bowl only partly re-fills, making the shit look something like a beached whale.
“It’s too big to go down,” Dad says.
“You’ll have to chop it up,” Mom says.
“For crissakes, Tom. You want me to do it?”
“Okay, okay, let me get something to chop with.”
“Wait!” says Irène, still on the floor, but sitting up now, leaning against the side of the tub. “I want to keep it.”
“Keep what?” Dad asks, halfway out the door.
“You know,” says Irène. “My poop.”
When their laughter subsides, her parents smile indulgently at Irène. She hasn’t said anything this cute since she was three.
“I mean it,” says Irène.
“Don’t be silly, Irène,” Mom says. “It’s not a pet.”
“I think I had an orgasm,” says Irène.
Maybe it began with the progressive daycare they sent her to and its enlightened attitude towards toddler sexuality, but Irène has always enjoyed an openness with her parents regarding sex, a frankness enjoyed less by her mother and not at all by her father who lobbied successfully, if belatedly, for transferring Irène to a more conventional daycare, where the birds and the bees were pretty much just birds and bees.
At Irène’s revelation, without a word or so much as a peek at wife or daughter, Dad slips out of the bathroom, gently closing the door behind him. Mom turns to Irène and nods sagely. She flips the toilet seat down and sits. With the neutral demeanor of a seasoned clinician, she begins, “So, you think you had—”
“Yeah,” says Irène. “Getting that thing out of me hurt so bad I thought I’d die, but then at the end, it sort of felt good and then it sort of felt real good, like orgasm good. Weird, right?”
“Definitely unusual,” says Mom, “but it is something I’ve heard of.”
“Really? Has it ever happened to you?”
“No. But I’ve never produced anything quite this . . . substantial.”
“I’m going to name it “Trevor,” says Irène.
“Please don’t name it,” Mom says.
“Why not? I made it. You named me.”
“That’s a false equivalency.”
“What’s a false equivalency?”
“Two things that can’t be compared. Like a baby girl and a poop.”
“But it’s a really impressive poop. You said so yourself.”
“Doesn’t matter. Who’s Trevor?”
“Just a boy at school I’m crushing on.”
“Do you think he’d appreciate being named after poop?”
“He’s a shithead, so he shouldn’t mind.”
“If he’s a shithead why do you have a crush on him?”
“Because he’s gorgeous.”
“Is that a good reason?”
“I don’t want to marry him. I just want to do him.”
“Honestly, Irène, that’s not—”
“Chill, Mom. I don’t mean now. When I’m older. If he’s still gorgeous. Some boys are gorgeous for like a minute and then it passes. It’s tragic.”
“What do you mean by ‘older’?”
“I don’t know. Like sixteen?”
Dismayed as she is by Irène’s timetable, Mom can’t help but recall her own first time, which was at sixteen and with a gorgeous shithead. Maybe, she thinks, it’s all pre-determined, maybe it all comes down to genes and their unyielding imperatives.
“I’m starving,” says Irène.
“How ‘bout an almond butter sandwich?”
“Funny,” says Irène. “I’ll never eat almond butter again.” She reaches for Snuffy, who had been stranded in the bathtub, and holds him close. Mom is heartened to see that some vestiges of little girl still linger in her daughter. A sudden bout of wistfulness threatens to engulf her, but it’s dispelled by Dad’s knock on the door.
“Are you decent?” he shouts.
“No!” daughter and mother both yell. Mom extends her pinkie finger, which Irène locks with her own. They look at each other and laugh.
“Coming in,” says Dad.
Irène and Mom release their fingers as Dad strides into the bathroom carrying latex gloves and a gardening trowel.
“That’s my trowel,” Mom says.
“So?” Dad says.
“So it’s meant for gardening.”
“I think it’s adaptable to the task at hand.”
“Why didn’t you bring one of your tools?”
“I don’t know, a hammer.”
“A hammer? You want me to beat it to death?”
“Stop!” says Irène. She points at her father. “Put down that garden thing. And don’t even think about a hammer. Trevor will not be chopped or beaten!”
“Who’s Trevor?” Dad asks.
“Trevor is in the toilet,” says Irène.
Dad looks at Mom. What has he missed?
“You don’t want to know,” Mom says.
“Trevor is my lover,” says Irène.
“Trevor is not your lover,” Mom says.
“Yet,” says Irène.
“What are you saying, Irène?” Dad asks. “You don’t want to flush your, your—”
“I do not,” says Irène.
“Then what do you propose to do with it?” Dad asks.
“That’s between me and Trevor,” says Irène.
“Irène, please stop calling it Trevor,” Mom says.
“I wish to be alone,” says Irène, poised to unleash a full-on sulk.
“Fine,” Dad says. He tosses the trowel and gloves into the sink. “I just don’t want to see that thing here in the morning.”
“It is morning,” Mom says. “And don’t do anything crazy.”
“Like what?” asks Irène, a bit too curious for Dad’s comfort.
“I don’t know what, just don’t,” he says.
“Okay,” says Irène.
“What do you want for breakfast?” Mom asks.
“Anything but almond butter.”
“Anything,” Irène mumbles distantly, her soul already in transit to some faraway place inhabited only by 13-year-old girls. Eyes closed, arms clasped around Snuffy, she rocks back and forth as though in a trance. Mom sighs her sigh of forbearance. Dad takes his wife’s hand. Together, they silently leave their daughter alone in the bathroom with her stuffed toy and a shit the size of a football.
* * *
Irène remains in her altered state long enough for her ass to fall asleep on the tile floor. She shifts her butt to wake it, enjoying the sensation of pins and needles. She opens her eyes and looks around to get her bearings. Plush towels line the towel rack, toothbrushes rest in their holder, robes hang on the back of the door. Everything appears to be in order. Her eyes land on the toilet, which to Irène seems to harbor a secret grin.
She crawls the few feet to the toilet, raises the lid a crack and peers in. Still there. Unchanged. She lets the lid drop. Using the toilet for support, Irène hoists herself to her feet. She drifts over to the bathroom linen closet. Beneath the shelves holding sheets and towels, soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, air-fresheners, cleaning products, she spots a glossy, unopened box containing a new hair-dryer. She gets the box open and pulls out its innards, dumping the instructions and Styrofoam worms in the trash can next to the sink. She places the shrink-wrapped hair-dryer on a lower shelf crammed with lightbulbs, extension cords, batteries—the electronics district of the linen closet. Irène sizes up the box. Just about perfect, she thinks. Box in hand, she moves purposefully to the sink, dons the gloves then picks up the trowel. She pauses to study herself in the mirror above the sink. After nearly a week in bed her face, framed by matted hair, is wan and pasty. But the eyes staring back at her look glittery. Irène decides she looks rather ghoulish and is not displeased. She turns from the mirror and steps over to the toilet. She kneels and places her hand on the lid, resting it there as if feeling for a heartbeat. She raises the lid and calmly, carefully, slides the trowel under the large, brown hunk. It is firm and solid with surprising heft and still redolent of almond. Happily, it stays in one piece as Irène angles it into the hair-dryer box.
It must have rained during the night. The wet grass on Irène’s bare feet feels cool and a little slippery. She has to watch her step. She doesn’t want to fall and spill the contents of her box. The bright daylight causes her to squint and a light breeze tickles her nose. With her free hand, she tightens her robe against the morning chill. She walks behind the garage to a small patch of land, the sacred burial ground of household pets.
Here lay the remains of assorted fish and turtles, several parakeets, one cat, and a few white mice, victims of the aforementioned cat, who now lie in their eternal resting place next to their killer, Fluffy, the cutest cat ever.
Irène gets to work with the trowel. The rain has softened the ground, so she’s able to dig a good-sized hole in no time. She lowers the box into the hole and is about to cover it with earth when it strikes her that she should say a few words. But what? “Dearly beloved . . . .” she starts, then stops. There are no beloved here. Just her and a box of excrement. For the first time, she wonders what the fuck she is doing.
Birds have kicked up a racket in the shrubs bordering the garage. Irène tries to locate them, but the birds are virtually invisible, camouflaged by twigs and leaves. It’s as if the shrubs themselves were making all the clatter. Most likely they’re all sparrows, thinks Irène, but maybe there’s a wren in there somewhere, fighting for a purchase in the highly competitive bird world.
Across the yard, through the kitchen window, Irène can see her mother flitting back and forth, in and out of view, busying herself with her daughter’s breakfast. Irène knows the free-range eggs will be cooked just right—over easy but not too easy. The gluten-free toast will be spread with the perfect amount of organic butter and jam. The orange juice will be freshly squeezed.
Irène looks down at the box in the hole. All she knows is it feels right and good to put this in the ground. She scoops soil onto the box until the hole is filled then pats down and smooths the earth. She finds a rock nearby and places it on the grave as a marker.
Thus, are ordinary things ennobled.
A former newspaper reporter, Michael Golder has written for the theater, film, and television. Michael is a recipient of the ABC-TV Theater Award, the Charles MacArthur Award for Comedy, and a Massachusetts Artists Foundation grant in playwriting. He lives in New York City.