What Remains

Last Wednesday, there she was, sitting in the corner by the $675 splattered paint on wall by local artist installation when she saw it, approaching from the entrance and using the handicapped button to help it because without muscles it no longer had a strong grip.

What Remains
Photo by Tom Wheatley / Unsplash

by Lori D'Angelo

Sometimes, she wanted him to die. And then he had. What she didn't expect was for his rotting corpse to stalk her.

She'd be going out to coffee or for a lunch date, and she'd see it, shedding fingers, toes, looking all Tales from the Crypt yuck.

After a while, she'd pretend she didn't see it. And then it would move to wave its bony hand. And she couldn't not see a skeleton waving its phalanges at her.

Last Wednesday, there she was, sitting in the corner by the $675 splattered paint on wall by local artist installation when she saw it, approaching from the entrance and using the handicapped button to help it because without muscles it no longer had a strong grip.

Why, she had wondered out loud to the barista, can't you kick that thing out?

But the barista, who had recently completed her company mandated diversity training, had looked at her horrified, "That would be discriminatory," she said.

Couldn't they just amend the sign outside the door to read No soul, no shirt, no service. But that, the barista had noted, might offend the Wall Street bankers.

Alyssa had sighed and settled down to sip her bitter but not burned artisan coffee, tasting notes of hazelnut, witch hazel, and tree bark. It was so subtle and so earthy, she thought, smiling. Then she thought she smelled actual dirt, and she looked up, and there it was, dragging a trail of graveyard soil behind it.

Seriously, she thought, it has to be some kind of health and safety violation to have a corpse walking around in an area where food and drink were served. Why doesn't anyone else seem concerned?

A middle-aged man at a nearby booth with glasses, an expanding waste line, and a receding hairline gave her a sympathetic nod. "We all have our corpses to bare," he said. That annoying allusion to religion gave her an idea. She would head to the local Catholic Church and pick up some holy water.

She went to Saint Peter's because it was .6 miles away and she could walk it. She had been sitting too much at work anyway, and she needed to get more steps in.

As luck would have it, the church was open because they had just had a funeral, and they hadn't yet locked back up. So Alyssa went on in through the side entrance. She was standing in the vestibule trying to figure out how to pour the Holy Water from the font into her Klean Kanteen (the mouth wasn’t wide enough to make it easy) when she ran into Father Brian a.k.a. Brian Leary a.k.a. her 10th grade boyfriend before he decided that he loved God more than girls.

Wow, this is awkward, Alysa thought.

"Hi, Alysa," he said. "I didn't see you at the funeral."

Alysa debated whether to tell him the truth or not. "So about that," Alysa said.

But Brian interrupted her. "What's with the Klean Kanteen?" he asked.

"Um, well," she began.

Brian's tone turned harsh. "Maybe you should go."

"Wait, no, listen," she said as she glanced over at the bulletin. According to the weekly listing, the confession times were now. "I'm here for confession."

Brian groaned.

"I feel like that attitude isn't very priestly," she said.

"Fine, come on," he said, as he led her to the confessional.

She got behind the screen and knelt. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been seventeen years since my last confession. Okay. What do I do now?"

"Just talk to me, Alysa."

Okay, she said, though she wasn't sure where to begin. "About six months ago, my boyfriend died."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"And ever since then, he's been following me everywhere."

"Alysa, don't," he said.

"Don't what?"

"Make a mockery of the sacrament. Are we done here?"

"Wait, Brian. Listen. Just come with me. Please, I'll show you."

Brian let out a sigh, got up, and said, "Okay, lead the way."

He followed her out to the parking lot, checking his watch, as if he had better things to do like turn water into wine or walk on water or turning palms to ashes. She thought of the nursery rhyme while looking for her corpse ex.

"Look, there," she said triumphantly, pointing to the skeleton across the street, which was standing there waving somewhat happily. "I think we’re safe here, Father. I don't think he can come onto the church grounds or whatever."

Brian squinted, looked from the skeleton to her and back to the skeleton again. "Start from the beginning," he said.

"Well, I was trying to."

"You have to admit that this whole scenario is a bit," Brian paused as if he was searching for the right word.

"Stressful?" Alysa suggested.

"I was thinking more along the lines of strange," Brian said. "But I could see how it could be stressful for you. Okay, so tell me what happened."

They continued watching the skeleton, which now appeared to be doing some kind of creepy line Beetlejuice inspired dance because, when it shook, body parts fell off. But the damage didn’t appear to be permanent because he just put the detached bones back on. He was persistent for a bone man.

"Luke," she said pointing to the skeleton, "died six months ago, and, honestly, at first, I was a bit relieved because it kept me from having to break up with him. I mean, I know it's a sin, but we lived together.  And we had a house together, and untangling our lives just seemed so complicated. In a way, death kind of seemed simpler."

"How did he die?" He asked. "Like you didn't kill him or anything, right?"

Alysa gave him a look. "Okay, maybe, back when I was young, I used to throw eggs at people's houses for Halloween, but you did, too. And, yes, I was trying to steal holy water, but it was for a good cause. And do you seriously think I've ever killed someone?"

"But how did he die?" Brian asked again. "And then what happened after?"

"I'm not sure why it matters," she said. "Unless you still think I'm like some creepy killer or something."

"Just tell me,” he said. She noted with satisfaction that he was no longer dreaming of miracles that he could perform.

"Fine," she said. "He died asleep, alone."

"Cause of death?"

"Brain aneurism."

"And then what happened?"

"I found him, called an ambulance, and they came and took away his body."

"Did you say goodbye?"

"To his corpse? I don't see why it matters. Is this part of your priestly training or something?"

"No,” he admitted. "I just watch a lot of horror movies. And it seems like maybe he has unfinished business with you. So what happened after the ambulance took away the body?"

She sighed. "I called his parents, and they dealt with it."

He asked how long they were together. She told him six years.

"And do you think that calling his parents was the right thing to do?"

"No,” she admitted, "Probably not."

Brian sighed. "Okay. I think I know what we need to do."

Brian drove her to the cemetery.

"Have you been here before?" he asked.

She gave him a look. Was this his idea of small talk? “Yeah, I come here every Friday for dates with my dead ex. I bring the popcorn, but he can’t eat it, so we mostly just leave it for the birds. What about you, Father?”

"Well, I'm a priest, so, yeah, I've been here many times. Have you been here since the funeral?"

"No," she admitted, "I haven't."

“Okay, well we’re going to go to his grave, and you’re going to talk to him. Sound good?” he asked.

And she said it did though it really didn’t. What sounded good or at least better was not going on a wild chase trying to pet her dead boyfriend genie back in a coffin.

Brian parked the car, a Lexus, and Alysa said, "You know this is kind of a nice car for a priest. Don't you take a vow of poverty or something?"

"Well, that's a common misconception, but no. Priests don't."

“So you can have fancy cars but not girls, got it.” She was trying to bait him. He said nothing, which annoyed her even more. “Don’t you care that I?” she began.

“I’m just trying to be your friend,” he said. “Priests can have friends, and I think you need one.”

Alysa walked left then right, past some smaller gray tombstones. She tried to look like she knew where she was going even though she didn't. She was determined not to admit this, but she felt like he already knew. In the daytime, the cemetery didn’t look creepy. It looked serene, like it wouldn’t be bad to spend the rest of your days with the stone and the flower wreaths and the dog poop. Admittedly the dog poop was more in the minus category than the plus. Alysa was trying to determine if, when she died, she would want her bones to be placed somewhere like this or if she’d rather have them burned. Ashes to Ashes. She wondered if Brian was thinking about the nature of life, death, and mortality, but apparently he wasn’t because he asked her, “So what have you been up to lately, Alysa?"

"Aside from trying to avoid the corpse of my head boyfriend? Well, not much."

"I saw your mom a while back," he said. "She comes to church sometimes."

"Well, that's news to me. I think it's this way," she said, pointing straight ahead. They walked up a steep hill and towards a black gravestone. It was large with curvy writing. The tombstone read: "Luke Warner, beloved son."

"Does that bother you?" he asked of the inscription.

"No," she said quickly. "I mean we weren’t married.”

"You keep on saying that, but do you think anyone really cares about that kind of technicality anymore?"

"His parents cared. They didn't even ask for my input on the service. And the picture montage they put together had like one picture of us, and not even a picture of us alone. Like we were together in a group with a bunch of other people.  His parents keep calling to find out when they can come over and get his stuff. But most of it isn't his stuff, it's our stuff. And they can't have it."

"Do you miss him?"

"I miss not being alone," she said.

"Alysa, you're not alone," he said.

"If you tell me God is with me, I'm going to puke."

"That's not what I was going to say," he said. "Alysa, I'm with you."

"You're with me, but you're not with me."

"Fair enough. What do you want to tell him?"

"That I’m sorry,” she said.

"Anything else?"

"Yeah. I want to know why he never asked me to marry him. Did he not love me? Did he want to leave me? Was he just staying like I was because staying was easier than leaving? Do you think that's good?"

"Do you think it is?"

Good wasn’t a word she would have used to describe how she was feeling right now. If this was over, then what remained, for her, for him, for any of them?

Brian watched her, then said gently, “He was an important part of your life, and now he’s gone. How does that make you feel.”

"You were an important part of my life, and now you're gone."

"I'm not gone in the same way he's gone. You can ask me questions if you want to. Go ahead, ask."

"Why did you break up with me?"

"Alysa, you broke up with me."

"That's not the way I remember it," she said.

"Because that's not the way you want to remember it," he said softly. "Are there things about him that you also don't want to remember?"

"Yeah, she said, "maybe."

"Come on," he said, motioning to the ground, "let's sit and talk."

"Can we do that?"

"Who's going to stop us? The Ghost of Elvis?"

"Okay," she sighed. "Fine."

"So what things?" he asked.

She sighed. "How far back do you want to go?"

"As far back as you need to."

Alyssa started laughing, then said, "I'll begin my life at the beginning of my life."

"You know, Alyssa. There are other things I could be doing right now."

"Two years ago, I could start there. We had these other friends who had been together as long as we had, but they were married, and they had a kid. And it was like, because they had a kid, their whole life changed. They seemed so anchored, settled. Like they didn’t care as much about trivial things like who won what game and which local brewery had a new craft beer, and, while we were there, I looked at Luke, and wondered if we’d ever be like that, tied together in that grounding way, and I didn't think we would, and it made me sad." Alysa went from sitting to laying in the grass. She felt but ignored a bug crawling up her pants legs. There were worse things. At least the bug was living.

Brian was still sitting with his back against Luke's grave. Absent-mindedly, affectionately, he ran his fingers through her long dark hair as if remembering. "What does it matter though? Once we're gone, we're gone. What's left here, whether it's ashes or bones, they're just remains."

"Brian, do you think you're doing the right thing with your life?"

"Well, I don't know, but I hope at least I'm helping people."

"Hey, give me a hand," she said. He reached over to her, and she felt his hands, solid, strong, fleshy, more than just bones.  She wanted to hold onto them, but she knew she had to let them go, and, when she did, she felt the emptiness of air.

“Can I drop you off somewhere?” Brian asked because he had driven.

“I don’t know,” she said because she didn’t want to be alone.

"Maybe," Brian said helpfully, "Back to wherever you parked your car? I didn't see it outside the church."

"Oh, yeah," she said. "That’d be fine. It's over by the coffee shop."

As they walked back down the hill to the cemetery parking lot, they watched Luke's corpse fly over to the grave. It was quick, almost like a blur, but it was him, swirling above him then down and down and down and down.

"I think he's really gone now," she said.

He opened the car door for her, and she got in. When he turned the radio on, "Another One Bites the Dust," began to play, and Alysa burst out laughing.

"Hey," he said seriously, "you okay?"

In response, Alysa began to sing Air Supply's "All Out of Love --So Lost Without You." To her surprise, he joined in. When she was done, he began to sing Tiffany's "I think

We're Alone Now." It was off key and awful and beautiful all at the same time.

They sang together the whole ride back whatever corny, creepy love/death songs they could think of including “The Banana Boat Song.” When they reached her less nice car on the road outside the coffee shop, she got out and turned to him ignoring the whir of city traffic buzzing by. "Thank you, Brian. Really, thank you."

"Hey," he said, "No problem. And keep in touch."

"I will. I promise."

"Like you promised me the last dance at the 10th grade homecoming?"

"No," she said, "this time I really mean it. Also, Joey DeSalvo won't be there, so no worries."

"Ah, how could I forget Joey DeSalvo?" he said. None of us could compete with his superior. . ."

"Intellect?" she suggested.

"You really do have a selective memory," he said. "Maybe I'll see you in church?"

"Probably not," she admitted. "But I hope I’ll see you."

"Aly, take care of yourself, and call, me," he said, "if you need anything. Or maybe just call."

“You know we could kill it at 80s karaoke night at O’Neill’s.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said.

Alysa watched Brian drive away in his swanky car as the light began to fade. She was finally alone, but, as she got in her car and hit the on button, in her head, she could still hear Brian singing Tiffany to make her feel better. She closed her eyes and remembered years ago, how he had gently kissed her to that song, and how eagerly she had kissed him back.

Lori D'Angelo's work has appeared in various literary journals including Drunken Boat, Gargoyle, Hawaii Pacific Review, Heavy Feather Review, Juked, Literary Mama, the Potomac Review, Reed Magazine and Word Riot. She is a fellow at Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She lives in Virginia with her dogs, cats, kids, and husband. You can find her on Twitter @sclly21.