The funeral parlor is indeed in a strip mall. A single-story stucco with a shoe store attached to one side and an office-supply place on the other. Sarah parks the car and sits behind the wheel, staring at the double doors of the funeral parlor, not wanting to go in. Twenty percent to Tori. Twenty percent to this Philip Clark. Sixty percent to Conningsby’s biological family. What does any of that mean? As if you can prove your claim by the mass of ash you carry around. She imagines the funeral director standing by a table, and on the table is a scale—an old-fashioned, double-plated one, like the scales of justice. He’s wearing a butcher’s apron over his undertaker’s black, and he’s scooping Conningsby’s ashes onto the plate, his glasses halfway down his nose, frowning, shaking his head in holy disgust.
She struggles into her black dress, crouching low to avoid the attention of a gang of kids stuffed into a nearby station wagon. A woman with a feather hat walks purposefully toward the funeral parlor, her lips a severe and distinct plum. Sarah’s lipstick is too saucy. She wipes it off, then fingers her collarbone. Where is Maya’s necklace? She searches through her suitcase and toiletry bag, panicked at the thought of what Maya will say. The pendant will not be found.
A minister is reading from the Bible as she slips into the back row, unoccupied save for a man who seems to be the only other person under seventy in the room. In the row before them a dozen or so of Conningsby’s relatives, pale necks and colorless hair, murmur a prayer. The minister steps down, and the woman with the plum lipstick rises. She makes her way to the podium, heels clicking, the black feathers on her hat bobbing with each step. An uneasy silence settles. She surveys the room. “Marshall was a brave and principled man.” Her eyes home in on Sarah. “He would have died for democracy.” She says this accusingly, as if Sarah would not die for democracy.
Sarah stares back, wondering if she is being overly sensitive, but no, the woman is glaring at her, accusing her of some kind of, what, lack of patriotism? Does she really think that Conningsby would have willingly signed up to die for democracy? The only person Sarah has known who could do such a thing, at least with any grace or intelligence, would have been her father. But he wouldn’t have done it for democracy, it would have been an atonement—no, that was putting it too grandly, it would have been revenge, sweet revenge, ptchinka.
Feather Hat continues, her voice breaking, talking about the Verdun and the Huns as if the mud was still red with men’s blood. The man beside Sarah looks on with what seems to be polite astonishment. He senses Sarah’s glance and turns toward her. He has the handsome bland face of an anchorman on the nightly news, and she is afraid that he is going to shush her even though she hasn’t said anything. Instead the corner of his mouth lifts into an asymmetrical smile that charms her completely. She is overcome with a desire to giggle, which he seems to intuit, for he shakes his head and turns back to Feather Hat.
At the end of the service, Feather Hat marches over to them. “I assume you’re here to pick up Marshall’s ashes.”
“Yes,” says the man, “I’m Philip Clark.” He extends his hand.
The woman gives it a cold stare. “Follow me.” She turns sharply.
Philip Clark drops his hand and allows himself a slight raise of the eyebrows. “Shall we?” he says to Sarah.
The woman stomps out of the chapel and down a narrow hallway, the feathers on her hat waving as they follow behind her. They turn a corner and go up some steps. Sarah’s surprised. The funeral parlor looked so small from the parking lot. They head down another hallway, fluorescent lights sputtering and crosses dangling and the woman’s heels clacking sharply against the tiles. Sarah starts to feel dizzy. What are they doing? They’re treating Conningsby like a medieval saint, doling out tibias and fibulas, only it’s worse—the charred remains of tibias and fibulas. She shouldn’t be involved in this. She’s a Jew, for God’s sake, Jews don’t believe in relics. But she’s not a Jew. It’s these crosses. They’re making her feel Jewish, or at least nervous. Philip Clark walks by her side, confident and oblivious. She wants to grab his elbow, steady herself. No. It would be too flailing.
They enter a sweltering little room, more of a storage closet, and Philip loosens his tie. In the corner, two plastic bags sit askew on an old vinyl armchair. The woman picks one up. “Here you go, Mr. Clark. It’s a shame that Marshall didn’t have any children of his own.” She hands him the bag.
He palms the contour of the container inside. “You must be Mrs. Merriweather,” he says. “Conningsby often spoke of you.”
The woman opens her mouth. The space inside is terribly black. “Miss,” she croaks. Something’s happened to her. She sucks in air, gulping it down like she can’t get enough. Sarah steps forward to help, but the woman bats her away. “Go.”
Sarah points at the second bag. “I need that first. I’m here for Victoria Scraperton.”
Miss Merriweather grabs the bag. “Tell Ms. Scraperton that if she had any pride, she’d have come here herself. She’s a whore, tell her that. A tramp.”
Sarah roots through her purse for the legal papers that Tori had FedExed her. “Here,” she says, offering the envelope.
Miss Merriweather, clutching the bag to her chest, won’t take it. Philip stands there unhelpfully. Sarah unfolds the letter and holds it in front of Miss Merriweather’s face.
“Go away,” the woman says.
“Give me the bag,” says Sarah.
Miss Merriweather stomps on Sarah’s foot. Sarah gasps, as much from shock as from pain, but the pain is considerable.
“Give me the bag!” She tries to wrest it from Miss Merriweather, but the old woman slips away. With a yowl she darts forward and kicks Sarah in the shin. Sarah makes a fist and starts to swing. Miss Merriweather screams and drops the ashes. Philip grabs Sarah right before her punch lands. Sarah looks down at the floor, trembling.
Philip squats to pick up Victoria’s bag. “We’re entitled to forty percent,” he says to Miss Merriweather. “If you want to dispute it, talk to the lawyer.”
Sarah is aware of him leaving, but she’s too dazed to move. She almost punched an old lady. She’s never punched anyone before. Miss Merriweather collapses on the armchair, sobbing. Sarah feels she should say something. She wavers at the doorway. But it doesn’t matter. Miss Merriweather is off in her own world, sobbing arrhythmically. Sarah turns down the hall and limps after Philip.
Outside, the air is cool. Cars stop at the light, and a man with a cake box walks across the street. This is how people are supposed to act, carrying cakes across the street, not plastic bags of ashes. Philip Clark is waiting for her. He gives her the bag.
“Don’t worry, you wouldn’t have hurt her. It wasn’t much of a punch.”
“Gee, thanks.” She examines her bag. It’s not even black. It’s a drawstring shopping bag. Inside, the ashes are packed into some sort of metal container. It’s not very heavy.
“I’m glad Victoria didn’t come,” Philip says. “She would have killed that woman, twisted her neck right off.”
“You know Tori?”
“I met her once, when I visited Conningsby.” He says this as if it is not strange, as if some Republican with neatly clipped hair has every right to know an old circus star living out in the middle of the desert.
“Did you know she used to dance with snakes?” Sarah says.
“No.” If he’s shocked, he doesn’t show it.
“Yeah, she was my mom’s mentor, a real star. She had her own tent, her own train car, a step above your normal sideshow fare. She had a real affinity for snakes.” She levels her eyes at Philip. “Her tongue, you know, is forked.”
Philip raises his eyebrows.
“She might not have shown it to you. It’s not so obvious that you can see it unless she demonstrates.”
“What about that drink?” Philip says.
“We’re supposed to have a drink. After funerals, you know. People have drinks.”
“All right,” she says, pleased. They walk down the sidewalk. The town’s main street is a four-lane road lined with parking lots, low, flat buildings, mass-produced signs offering nothing you want. His hand touches the small of her back.
“You’re limping,” he says.
“Miss Merriweather knows how to stomp.”
“We’ll stop here then. No point in taking a tour.” It’s a Holiday Inn with a bar called The Good Times. A waitress with braces seats them in a dark booth under a painting of snowcapped mountains. They put their plastic bags on the benches, then slide in afterward. Their knees touch. Sarah lights a cigarette. Conningsby would have enjoyed this; he would be having one of his silent laughs. Why had he never mentioned Philip? But why would he have? Some kid from Terre Haute. He didn’t speak much of his past.
Philip orders them Scotch with extra ice for Sarah’s foot.
“To Miss Merriweather,” he says when the drinks arrive.
“So what’s the story there?”
“She was Conningsby’s fiancée, before the war.”
Philip shrugs. “Conningsby broke off the engagement.”
“But he still spoke of her.”
“I said that to make her feel better. He mentioned her, but mainly to illustrate the difference of before-the-war and after-the-war. Before the war, they were engaged. After the war, he had different ideas.”
“Different ideas? What kind of ideas?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
He looks at her patiently. “It would have been digging.”
No, it’s not a patient look, it’s a condescending look, as if she had no tact. She swings her knees away from his. Just because she almost punched an old woman doesn’t mean she doesn’t have tact.
“It’s funny to think of you and him being friends.”
She’s flustered. What’s she supposed to say? Because your face is too neat and square, the face of a man who’s afraid to ask questions, and Conningsby wasn’t afraid to ask questions. She corrects herself: Philip would ask questions, but they’d be predictable, preapproved. Just the facts, ma’am. It’s that TV anchorman face, composed, steady keeled, not unduly affected.
She squirms in her seat. She wants to affect him. Fuck him and his tact. She slides her knee back between his. It’s the funeral. It’s her throbbing foot. It doesn’t matter what it is. She wants to see him sweat. She wants to get a room. They will, obviously. Why else did they stop at a hotel? She’s never screwed in a Holiday Inn—how fitting, a Holiday Inn smack in the middle of the Midwest with a white guy who asks formulaic questions. Why is he looking at her like that? Oh, yes, she’s just put her foot in her mouth. What’s so funny about him and Conningsby being friends?
“I don’t know,” she says, “I guess I picture Conningsby alone, you know, out West on his horse.”
He smiles, a friendly spread of lines around his eyes. A kind smile. She’s being too hard on him.
“He had horses in Terre Haute too,” Philip says. “Not in the city proper, in a big house in the woods.”
She leans forward, all of a sudden understanding what Philip must know. “You mean his grandfather’s house? Alligator’s? Did it really look like a castle?”
“Yes. Did Conningsby tell you about it?”
“We were working on a book together. The castle was the project of Alligator’s old age.”
“I’d love to see the book. Do you have a draft?”
“I wish we had gotten that far—I only have some patchy bits of his essays. They were wonderful, but never completed. And about a dozen paintings.” God, the years poured into that book. One of the pictures featured Alligator’s castle rising out of the Everglade swamps. She wonders what Philip would make of it, if it would bear any correlation to the place he’d been in. “Was the turret really crooked?”
He looks confused, but only for a moment. “Yes,” he says fondly. “It had a tiny, narrow spiral staircase. I’d climb up with a glass of juice and put the glass down on the stairs so I could see the angle at which the liquid settled. There were so many things about that place. A dumbwaiter you could climb into. A roomful of lances and rawhide shields. And this gigantic basement—god . . .”
“Did it have dungeons?”
“No.” Philip hesitates. “No. It was just a big basement. That’s all, a lot of space. You forget, living in New York, that basements don’t blow everyone away.”
Sarah sits up straighter. “You live in New York?”
“Seventy-eighth and Riverside.” He fumbles for his card. “Here. You should call me up sometime.”
She crosses her legs. They are not getting a room, absolutely not. She won’t have another drink; she can’t let herself get tempted. People think that New York is big, but not if you sleep with someone you don’t want to see again. And she can’t see him again. He has a solid decency about him that is lovely, but not for her. Maya would eat him up for breakfast. She wraps the ice in a napkin and presses it against the pain.
“Put your foot up here,” Philip says, patting the bench beside him. “It won’t swell as much if you keep it raised.” He places her ankle beside his thigh and holds the makeshift ice pack to her foot.
Cold water seeps into her stocking and his trousers. They stare into their drinks. They are no longer on their seconds, but their thirds or fourths. They have balanced the booze with plates of chicken wings and mozzarella sticks and bloated green olives, both of them surprised by their hunger. She misjudged him earlier. They wouldn’t have gone to bed; she mistook funeral angst for sexual friction, or something like that. And he’s not bland, he’s just understated. She likes being with him. It’s like being with family. What a strange thought. He’s so emphatically unlike family. Maybe it’s just that he likes Scotch. Max liked Scotch. No ice. Straight. He’d stir it around with his pinkie and suck the drop from his fingertip.
“Good lord,” says Philip.
“It’s funny how you can miss people that you haven’t seen in years.” They are silent. The bar has become crowded with drunken salesmen in matching electric-blue jerseys. They yell scores and throw peanuts at the waitress. Philip shakes his head in disgust. “It’s hot in here. Let’s go outside.”
They head for the lobby, each with a bag in hand. He walks ahead of her, and she feels that something has cooled between them, but then he stops at the door and opens it with a charming bow.
“Where are we going?” she says.
“I don’t know. Let’s take a walk.” Outside it’s dark and there are stars in the sky, a particular wonder for those from Manhattan. “I’m sorry. I forgot about your foot.”
“It’s fine. It’s nicely numb at this point.”
Philip relaxes and they walk, hips bumping, down the ugly strip. She’s happy. She catches herself swinging her bag, its contents forgotten. They pass convenience stores and gas stations, a couple buildings that must have been nice but now are boarded up.
“No graffiti,” she says. “This town is hopeless. There should always be kids and spray paint livening things up.”
“Graffiti’s a blight.”
“Don’t be square.”
“I’m not square. I’m an architect. Graffiti mars buildings.” He reaches for her, slips his arm around her. He tells her that he became an architect because of Conningsby. “That basement in the castle?” he says. “It wasn’t just big. It was filled with stuff. We were making a model, Conningsby and I, a model of an entire town, a French country town with a Gothic church. We had a sunlamp, soil beds, chisels, whetstones. The details were exact and historically correct; there were bonsais in the orchards and stained glass in the church windows. We worked on it for years. A perfect model.”
“Conningsby never mentioned that. Why France? Where’s the model now?”
“In the historical society of Terre Haute. I’ll take you there someday, if you want.”
Sarah grins so wide her cheeks hurt. Maybe New York is big enough. His fingers curl around her waist. She plays with his thumb, squeezing it gently.
But she can’t. He is not the sort of man to bask in the pleasure of a good love affair. He’s a marriage-and-kids guy; it’s written all over his face. She lets go of his thumb, then to get his arm off her, leans down and rebuckles her shoe. When she stands up, his hands are in his pockets and he’s frowning at the sidewalk.
“What’s wrong?” she asks, hoping she wasn’t too obvious. But the pain in his eyes goes deeper than anything she could have delivered.
“Nothing,” he says. “I mean, Conningsby saved my childhood. I don’t know what would have become of me if I’d been stuck in Terre Haute with only my parents. I wanted to thank him when I went out to Texas. But I didn’t even say goodbye.”
“You got into a fight?”
“Not with Conningsby, with a friend of his.” He relaxes somewhat. “I took off in the middle of the night. Never said goodbye. Never said thank you.”
“Conningsby knew that you loved him. Why do you think you’re here? He wouldn’t have mentioned you in his will—” She frowns down at her bag. “Let’s open them.”
“The ashes? Now?”
“No, just the bags. I want to see what the containers look like.”
They are small tin cups with handles on either side, like the dusty trophies you see on display in diners and childhood rooms. Philip closes his bag first. They start walking again. His arm is no longer wrapped around her. This is what she wanted, but it feels unduly absent. She lights a cigarette, wishing the smoke were warmer and more substantial.
The sidewalk gives out. They stop and look ahead: a dark road with dark shadows of houses and dark shadows of trees. There are still stars though. Fuck consequences. She wants his arm back around her. He’s a grown man. He can take care of himself. She looks for a constellation. She’ll nudge him, point it out, see what happens. This is bad. She wants it too much. His shoulder brushes against hers. She jumps.
“You’re shivering,” he says. “Take my jacket.”
“No. I have to go.” The words surprise her. That’s not what she’d meant to say. But once said, they strike her as correct. She needs to get out of there, and fast. She’s acting like an idiot. She touches his cheek, then touches her neck. “I have to get back to New York.”
“You’re leaving now? It’s past midnight.” His breath is a warm cloud of Scotch, slightly sour. She puts a hand to his chest to stop him from coming closer.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize what time it was.”
“Right,” says Philip, retracting.
“It was lovely meeting you.”
“I’m sorry,” she says again.
He draws himself up straighter. “Don’t be.”
“Well, goodbye,” she says, stepping backward, still facing him.
“You better watch where you’re going.” She was about to walk into a fire hydrant. She sidesteps it and walks toward the funeral home’s parking lot, feeling his presence behind her. Anything, the slightest little peep, and she’d stop. But he remains quiet. She gets to her car crying. She should have kissed him. Even a peck. Just one kiss. Something. She wipes her eyes. She hates crying.
She drives through town, through flat, unseen farmland, on two-lane highways and six-lane interstates. Somewhere near the border of Ohio, she finds herself all alone with no other cars on the road. She turns off her headlights and drives by the light of the moon. The pavement wedges into the darkness of the land. The sky is the same shade of dark, only translucent. She shivers. It’s beautiful. It’s a goddamn interstate, but all the angles, all the planes are glowing with a dark radiance, perfectly composed.
ELIZA FACTOR is a writer and the founder of Extreme Kids & Crew. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and three children. Her debut novel, The Mercury Fountain, was published in 2012. Love Maps is her latest novel.
Adapted from Love Maps, by Eliza Factor, Copyright © 2015 by Eliza Factor. With the permission of the publisher, Akashic Books.